BY SUE BADEAU
While caucuses have no recognition in official congressional rules, no line-item budget and no official staff, they are often successful at influencing national policy. Susan Webb Hammond, professor of government at American University, and author of "Congressional Caucuses in National Policy Making," says that "caucuses have become an important link in the policy chain for everyone who is engaged in the business of federal Washington." They create this influence through activities such as sponsoring public conferences and events, conducting research and holding unofficial hearings, as the Congressional Children's Caucus did in October of 1999 through "Kids Day on Capitol Hill." Senior officials from the departments of Education, HHS and Justice testified about issues such as after-school programs and youth transitional needs.
Caucuses often seek influence through "Dear Colleague" letters or by holding briefings. Lara Battles, staffer for Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chair of the Congressional Scouting Caucus, notes that while the group rarely holds meetings, it does send out "Dear Colleague" letters several times a year to "keep members informed about Scouting issues." The Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues regularly holds briefings, such as a teen pregnancy briefing it held in 1999 with four other caucuses.
Do Caucuses really make a difference? Analysts such as Hammond and public policy scholar Don Wolfenberger of the Woodrow Wilson Center says yes. Staff member Debbie Cohen of Rep. Frost's office, who worked on the Bipartisan Working Group on Youth Violence, believes all the participants came away more knowledgeable about youth violence and ready to apply what they learned..
Another member of that working group, Rep. Roemer, later hosted the "Summit on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children" in the summer of 2000. That was a bellwether issue in an election year, another example of how caucuses can influence not only policy, but public discourse.
Sue Badeau can be reached at Sbadeau@aol.com.