WASHINGTON — Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has staked out leadership on such issues forest policy and rural health care. But this summer he decided to take up two American favorites — television and beer.
Walden founded two congressional caucuses — essentially groups of like-minded legislators — this summer: the Small Brewers Caucus and his newest endeavor, the Digital Television Caucus. The first is a more lighthearted organization that will lookout for small brewers’ interests when they arise, while the television caucus is aimed at an impending change in TV broadcast signals. They’ll join the scores of other congressional groups that are often mentioned at press conferences, or on congressional biographies, but that seldom meet.
There are caucuses for crops — potatoes, peanuts, sugar. Caucuses for building materials — cement, steel. Caucuses for geographic features — Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, the Everglades. There are caucuses for nations — Kazakhstan, Sudan, Swaziland. For diseases — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lyme. And for professions — correctional officers, former mayors.
Walden is a member of 39 caucuses, ranging from the 4-H Caucus to the House Potato Caucus. The House Committee on Administration counted 213 caucuses operating as of June 4.
“It’s a lot like clubs in high school,” said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. “Some of them do real work and some of them just provide members with a way to pad their resumes.”
Walden officially formed the Digital TV Caucus earlier this year, although he plans a kickoff event sometime this summer. The impetus is the impending changeover of broadcast television signals, which will switch from analog to digital in early 2009.
Walden has often been called on by House colleagues to speak on broadcast issues, thanks to his experience as the former owner of five radio stations in Hood River and The Dalles.
Like a club president putting up fliers to attract new recruits, Walden has sought support for the DTV caucus by sending out “dear colleague” letters that outline the caucus’ goals.
As of last month, 22 congressmen and -women had joined Walden’s newest group, but he hopes to draw more members in coming months, an aide said.
The caucus, according to a letter sent to legislators, will “communicate information on the transition to our constituents in creative and culturally competent ways.” It is set to disband after the television transition in 2009.
Both the Small Brewers and DTV caucuses are examples of the most common sort of the group, essentially the extension of a lobbying effort around a single issue, said Bill Lunch, chairman of the Oregon State University Political Science Department.
“There are usually either specific existing policies that need to be defended or there’s the potential for making advancements or doing better in a much more specific way,” Lunch said.
Walden is co-chairman to three other groups: the House Northwest Energy Caucus, House Rural Health Care Coalition and House Small Brewers Caucus, which he also founded this year with Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield. Walden is vice chairman of the House Renewable Energy Coalition.
“A lot of the idea of these caucuses is to develop an infrastructure of members who are like-minded on one issue in case legislative action is needed,” Walden spokesman Andrew Whelan said. “That’s not something they’re meeting on every week.”
Unlike the U.S. House, the Senate does not formally recognize caucuses, so it’s unclear how many Senate groups exist.
Oregon’s senators have concentrated on technology in their caucus leadership: Republican Gordon Smith is co-chairman of the Congressional International Anti-Piracy Caucus, which targets copyright enforcement; Wyden co-founded the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus earlier this year.
But some legislators were not eager to talk about some of their affiliations. When asked to describe the mission of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Interparliamentary Friendship Group, the offices of chairmen Reps. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., and Joe Wexler, D-Fla., did not respond.
Legislators generally join groups like the Kazakhstan caucus or tourism caucus for symbolic reasons, Lunch said.
“There’s kind of a pro forma listing that is really for the consumption of members of interest groups,” Lunch said. “This is basically a way of saying I’m concerned about your interest.”
For many issues, having the caucus infrastructure in place makes it easier to mobilize, said Sandra Salstrom, a spokeswoman for Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., co-chairman of the Rural Health Care Coalition with Walden.
“It’s certainly just the ability to speak with such a strong voice, nearly half the Congress, on just one issue,” Salstrom said, of the 175-member caucus.
Salstrom pointed to the creation and continued funding for the federal Office of Rural Health Care Policy as an achievement of the caucus.
Other caucuses serve as extensions of industry lobbying efforts. The Portland Cement Association, which has hosted at least one meeting with the Cement Caucus in Washington, D.C., will only donate to legislators who are caucus members, according to its Web site. The association spent $700,000 lobbying Congress in 2006, according to Federal Election Commission records.
A cement association representative could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., co-chairman of the Cement Caucus, said he did not know when the caucus last met. Stupak’s press secretary, Alex Haurek, declined to answer questions about the Cement Caucus, but offered to talk about the congressman’s other affiliations.
“He just helped establish a water caucus,” Haurek said.
Rep. Walden's other caucus memberships
Vice Chair, House Renewable Energy Caucus
Air Force Caucus
Community College Caucus
Congressional Beef Caucus
Congressional Cancer Caucus
Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine
Congressional Coalition on Adoption Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus
Congressional Fires Services Institute
Congressional Host Committee for the Volunteers of America Organization
Congressional Internet Caucus
Congressional Manufactured Housing Caucus
Congressional Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus
Congressional National Parks Caucus
Congressional Native American Caucus
Congressional Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Caucus
Congressional Real Estate Caucus
Congressional Rural Caucus
Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus
Congressional Wine Caucus
Defense Study Group
Distributed Energy Caucus
Frozen Food Caucus
House Army Caucus
House Diabetes Caucus
House Homeland Security Caucus
House Potato Caucus
House Sugar Caucus
House Taiwan Caucus
National Environmental Policy Act Task Force
Navy/Marine Corps Caucus
USO Congressional Caucus
Victory in Iraq Caucus