Congressional Member Organizations in the House of Representatives, commonly called “caucuses,” are a way members of Congress can work together on legislation that doesn’t fit into traditional committees or their chairs’ agendas. When caucuses are registered by the Committee on House Administration, one or more Representatives is identified as a co-chair. There are currently 597 leadership spots held in the 258 caucuses registered to date. The Representatives who occupy caucus leadership spots are a slightly atypical bunch. Of those 597 co-chair positions, 314 (52.6%) are occupied by Democrats and 283 (47.4%) by Republicans. Those shares aren’t at all in proportion with numerical makeup of the House: 193 Democrats (44.4%) and 242 Republicans (55.6%); Democrats are disproportionately likely to act as caucus leaders in the 112th Congress.
Caucus co-chairs are disproportionately liberal as well. Here at That’s My Congress we maintain an index of liberal and conservative congressional action in voting and bill cosponsorship by members of the House. If we take the percentage of possible liberal actions actually taken by a member of Congress, and subtract the percentage of possible conservative actions actually taken by that same member of Congress, the result is an index in which a score of -100 indicates a perfectly conservative record, a score of +100 indicates a perfectly liberal record. It turns out that no member of Congress actually touches these ideal poles; every one of the 435 members of the House of Representatives falls somewhere in between. Not surprisingly for a Republican-dominated House, the median score for this index among all members is -32, a relatively conservative score. We interpret the median to signify that half of the House has a score more conservative than -32, while half of the House has a score more liberal than -32. But the median liberal-to-conservative index score among the set of co-chair caucus leadership positions is quite a bit higher: -4. Co-chair positions tend to be held by disproportionately liberal members of Congress.
Why might this be the case? For a definitive answer, you’d have to interview all caucus co-chairs, an improbably daunting task. But the reason for caucuses’ existence suggests a possible answer. Remember that caucuses exist to develop legislation that either doesn’t easily fit within the subjects of the traditional formal committees of Congress, or to consider subjects that the sitting committee chairs neglect. Right now, Republicans are in charge of House committees, giving Republican members an inside connection when pursuing their legislative passions. Minority Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, have no such avenue. It shouldn’t be too surprising to see Democrats organizing outside the traditional committee structure, forming caucuses to build ad hoc coalitions instead.