Nearly two decades after former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., terminated bank accounts for congressional caucuses and ordered them to vacate their Capitol Hill offices, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise is aiming to amend House rules governing the member organizations.
Scalise told a House Rules panel convened recently to talk about proposals for the 114th Congress that he wants to build on the changes implemented under Gingrich, with the goal of making caucuses “more professional and transparent.”
The Louisiana Republican formerly served as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, one of the 28 caucuses Gingrich sought to eliminate in 1995. The RSC has survived, and thrived, with more than 170 members among its ranks, and Scalise appears to be aiming to strengthen its operations. Scalise shared examples of administrative struggles and asked for a re-examination of the rules governing caucuses. He did not offer specifics, just the outcome of more desired transparency. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, GOP leaders criticized caucuses for filing late, incomplete or misleading quarterly financial reports. Gingrich and others said many of the caucuses were merely taxpayer-subsidized arms of special interests. Critics suggested nepotism and cronyism, and millions in unaccounted spending.
In 1995, the House eliminated taxpayer funding for legislative service organizations — as they were officially called — and created a new set of rules for congressional member organizations. Caucuses were redefined as informal member organizations that share official resources to jointly carry out activities.
Before the change, quarterly reports of the Clerk of the House contained the names of staff members of groups, their salaries and the member office accounts that supported the caucuses. Under current House Rules, the RSC and other caucuses cannot function as employing authorities, so staffers have to be hired and fired from month to month, rotating from different members' payrolls for accounting purposes.
The 50-page list of congressional member organizations maintained by the House Administration Committee lists staff contacts for each caucus, with a parenthetical reference to which member they work for. Finding out who else is working for a caucus requires combing staffer by staffer through disbursement reports looking for evidence that he or she is a “shared employee” among several members — and hoping that one of the members reported what caucus the employee works for.
"The reason that I feel strongly this needs to be reformed is, No. 1, there is no transparency," he said. "There's no way to find out who it is that is on the staff of, for example, the Republican Study Committee. That ought to be transparent."
Scalise also suggested the current structure “literally eliminates your ability to have professionalism.”
Due to the complicated, high-volume paperwork required for shared staff affiliated with caucuses, Scalise said errors inevitably occur and negatively affect staff. Serious examples include health care coverage being dropped, student loans going unpaid or lapses in retirement benefits. Other difficulties are more mundane, such as email outages and difficulty securing parking spots.
“As you can imagine, if you had that happen every single month, with every single staff … it’s just not the way for us to be operating,” Scalise concluded.
Members at the helm of other congressional caucuses told CQ Roll Call the rules could be improved, especially relating to how staff is hired and paid. However, leaders of prominent Democratic caucuses are wary of Scalise’s suggestion that there’s not enough sunlight on caucus operations.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he thinks the effort is “more to try to gag the individual caucuses than it is to try and make them transparent.” If you want to do it right, he said, “go back to the system we had.”
Grijalva supports giving caucuses their own spending accounts, so that staff don't have to rely on month-to-month compensation packages. In his opinion, the House should return to lump sum budgets for caucuses. “That’s how you’re going to get documentation,” he said, “because then you become part of the system where those records are centralized, and oversight or anybody can have a look at it.”
Grijalva fears Scalise's suggestion that the House re-examine requirements that shared staff be hired and fired every month could lead to limits on the month-to-month payments, handicapping the Progressive Caucus' ability to staff itself, for instance.
“Caucuses are voluntary," he said, "but in order to be effective in this place, you can’t just be a social gathering.”
Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, rejected Scalise's suggestion that caucus hiring is not transparent.
“If you were to come to my office right now and say who works for the CBC, we would tell you ... it is a public record," she said. "So I don’t know what he’s referring to. Clearly he obviously doesn’t know how the CBC functions if he thinks we’re not transparent as it relates to our hiring, who’s on our staff."
Fudge agreed the month-to-month hiring arrangement is difficult. The CBC has not run into any problems maintaining staffer health care coverage, she said, but the paperwork is a burden. She would like to find a different mechanism than rotating staffers from one CBC member’s payroll to another each month, but she doesn’t know if returning to the old model is the answer. Fudge said the CBC only needs money for staff.
“When Gingrich and those people decided to do away with caucuses having a budget, it created the environment in which we had to do it this way,” she said. “But I’d love to find another way to do it, quite frankly.”
Rep. Rob Woodall, the Georgia Republican who temporarily took the helm of the RSC when Scalise joined GOP leadership, told CQ Roll Call that changing the rules for caucuses in the next Congress is on the "short list" of proposals that he thinks the House is going to be enthusiastic about adopting.
Woodall said it is “incredibly difficult” from an administrative standpoint to hire staff and buy supplies for the RSC. “When you’re a dues-paying organization, you just end up having each dues-paying member individually purchase $5,000 worth of your costs as they arise,” he said.
“There was a good reason for reining in the practices of caucuses having their individual budgets," he continued. "If you had six people in charge of the RSC and something went wrong, who would be responsible? If reports weren’t made on time, if dollars were misused?”
Woodall, who is chairman of the House Rules Subcommittee on Legislative and Budget Process, said it’s important in this rules transition that the House makes it clear that there is a named member at the top of every committee’s leadership who takes responsibility “for absolutely every dollar that that caucus or organization spends.”
The rules changes in 1995 were not a mistake, Woodall said, but in response to a problem. "But now in 2014 we see an even better way to solve that problem," he said.
Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.