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–by Allie Swislocki

On the rainy morning of December 7, 2011, a crowd of about 50 staff members and supporters of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society gathered at the annual Congressional Leadership Breakfast. The event, a tradition since 2003, provides a forum for a member of the congressional leadership—either from the House or the Senate—to speak to an intimate group on a topic of their own choosing. This year, our guest was the Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Congressman John Larson (CT-1).

Congressman John Larson (CT-1) addresses the group at the annual USCHS Leadership Breakfast

Congressman Larson, now in his seventh term, discussed his years as a member of the House, as well as his thoughts on the current political climate and his time as Caucus chair. The latter subject raised the question: what exactly does a caucus do? As a former political science and history student, I was embarrassed to realize I didn’t really know the answer. Thankfully, we live in the age of Google, and to the Internet I went.

A caucus, as outlined by dictionary.com, is:

Noun
1. U.S. Politics.
a. a meeting of party leaders to select candidates, elect convention delegates, etc.
b. a meeting of party members within a legislative body to select leaders and determine strategy.
c. (often initial capital letter) a faction within a legislative body that pursues its interests through the legislative process: the Women’s Caucus; the Black Caucus.
2. any group or meeting organized to further a special interest or cause.

So how does that translate into Congressman Larson’s role? According to their website, the House Democratic Caucus “works with every Democratic member of the House of Representatives to help achieve consensus, bring their ideas and work to the forefront and ensure members have the tools they need to implement their goals. It is the only subgroup within the House of which every Democrat is a member.” Additionally, the Caucus approves committee assignments, nominates and elects House Democratic Leadership, enforces party discipline, and serves as a forum to develop and communicate party policy and legislative priorities. As chairman, Larson presides over meetings, organizes the Caucus Issues Task Forces, and runs the Caucus Issues Conference at least once a year. Essentially, he is in charge of keeping everything running smoothly and keeping everyone in line. So, in this context, caucuses are a main organizing force for each political party within their respective legislative chamber.

Those gathered listened as Congressman John Larson (CT-1) addressed them on issues of leadership in Congress

The House Democratic Caucus is not the only caucus active on the Hill. The Congressional Black Caucus, for one, is a very well-known Washington staple: for 40 years, they have, according to their website, worked to ensure that “all Americans, regardless of race, color or creed have the chance to pursue and achieve the American dream.” The other side of the aisle is not discounted on this front either—the House Republican Conference, chaired by Congressman Jeb Hensarling (TX-5), functions in much the same way as the House Democratic Caucus, rallying Republican support behind common causes. Others vary, from the Americans Abroad Caucus to the Zero Capital Gains Tax Caucus (literally covering from A to Z), encompassing a whole host of interests with which Congressmen can choose to align themselves. There are caucuses on the Senate side as well, and it is not uncommon for both House and Senate members to belong to over a dozen such caucuses outside of those attached to their party leadership.

While the base ideology of the party caucuses may differ, the mission is the same: to make America a better place for everyone. Congressman Larson envisions a brighter future where we can bypass the discord, and work together to improve our country, and subsequently, the world at large. He hopes that we can, as a country, recognize that while the means we use to get there can often differ and cause disagreement, the ends we seek are very much the same, which is something I think we all need to remind ourselves of from time to time.

Let us know if you have a question or comment about the party leadership organization in either the House or Senate and we will be happy to answer it or at least point you in the right direction!

Sources consulted:

House Democratic Caucus homepage:
http://www.dems.gov/democratic-caucus
Congressional Black Caucus website:
http://thecongressionalblackcaucus.com/about/from-the-chairman
House Republican Conference website:
http://www.gop.gov/

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