Congressional caucuses cater to wide menu of special interests Groups help muster clout for projects back home

March 15, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- One looks out for ball bearings. Another is designed to support footwear. There is one that caters to sportsmen, and still another that waxes poetic about the B-2 bomber.

They all are congressional caucuses, dozens upon dozens of lawmaker subgroups formed to back pet projects -- even pets themselves through the Congressional Friends of Animals.

At times, the caucuses can muster enough clout to alter bills or henpeck bureaucrats to bend to their wishes. And they are sprouting faster than, well, the Mushroom Caucus -- 25 lawmakers who came together to legislatively defend the popular fungus.

From its earliest days, Congress has divided into small schools of like-minded members in the boarding houses that once rimmed the Capitol. Over the years they moved into more formal settings with gavels, stationery and aggressive agendas.

But, in the past two decades, the caucuses have blossomed from an estimated 16 to about 120, celebrating everything from textiles and space to beef and steel.

Some even have private spinoffs, Washington institutes that pump out reports and studies funded by corporations and foundations.

Some caucuses are blatantly political, said Capitol Hill staffers and other observers, who say more than a few are created only to "look nice in the hometown newsletter."

The Chesapeake Bay Caucus, for example, was formed by former Rep. Roy P. Dyson, during a time he was dogged by charges of ethical lapses. He was defeated less than a year later in 1990.

But the caucus lives on under Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th. "He's tried to make it a more serious endeavor," said Brad Fitch, a spokesman for the congressman, who used the caucus recently as a forum on wetlands' policy.

Enough is enough, said the House Administration Committee that oversees the House caucuses and the House-Senate groups. The committee, in the mid-1980s, stopped approving the more sophisticated caucuses: legislative service organizations. LSO's, as they're known in Hill parlance, number 30 and spent upward of $4 million last year for staff and expenses.

"That's something we've run out of," said a House aide, who expects the committee to tighten up LSO regulations.

Still, the caucuses continue to flourish through more informal organizations that operate from a member's office with existing personal staff. The Urban Caucus was formed last year. Others created in the 1990s include the Animal Welfare Caucus, the Bipartisan Veterans' Health Care Coalition, the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus and the Congressional Boating Caucus.

The Bearing Caucus was formed in 1986 after the ball-bearing industry complained of foreign competition. It now boasts about 75 members.

"Almost all of them have bearing plants in their districts," said a bearing caucus aide, pointing to the national importance of a seemingly mundane item.

"Bearings are part of everything that moves," he declared.

Last fall, the caucus was successful in persuading Pentagon officials to back a 15-month extension of a Defense Department requirement for purchasing U.S.-made bearings.

Meanwhile, the Mushroom Caucus added an amendment to the 1990 farm bill that would set aside a small portion of U.S. mushroom sales to create a research and promotional organization.

And the Sportsman's Caucus, with more than 150 House and Senate members, helped tag on the only amendment to last year's California Desert Protection Act. It would allow hunting on a portion of the federal lands.

But the caucuses have their detractors, who say they use up valuable staff and money, while delaying a Congress that already moves at a snail's pace.

"They can slow things down," said an aide to one committee chairman. "You come out with a bill . . . the next thing you know there's a caucus that wants to be consulted on it."

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, often grumbles that the caucuses undermine the existing committee and leadership hierarchy.

"You divide the existing power structure," said one committee aide. "The power's been so diffused. One [caucus] breeds another."

"[Lawmakers] look up and say, 'Gee, all those guys are getting all the money.' That's the sort of thing that leads to the other," said one congressional official.

Indeed, the caucuses have proven Newton's theory: For every action there's a reaction.

The Northeast Midwest Congressional Coalition, with 200 members and an estimated $186,000 budget last year, came together in 1976 in an effort to steer federal funds toward an area derisively known as "The Rust Belt."

Within three years the Sun Belt Caucus was created. It comprises a group of Southern and Southwestern lawmakers who try to wrangle more help from Uncle Sam.

The Northeast Midwest Institute and the Sun Belt Institute work off the Hill, churning out reports for their respective regions.

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