House Republicans yesterday proposed to take away the budgets, staffs and Capitol Hill offices of 28 caucuses, including organizations of female, black and Hispanic lawmakers whose visibility and political clout had grown noticeably in the Congress just concluded.
Republicans have long criticized the caucuses, which generally provide legislative information to like-minded lawmakers, as unaccountable organizations with sometimes questionable financial practices. GOP critics also view the caucuses as part of the bureaucratic underbrush that they suggest interferes with the central business of lawmaking.
A background paper circulated by Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a longtime critic of the caucuses, said implementing the restrictions would free up 16 offices and eliminate 96 jobs. The groups spend a total of more than $4 million a year, collected from members' office accounts. The changes would not mean those funds would necessarily be saved.
Members of the affected caucuses still could meet and share information, but staff to research issues and draft bills would have to be borrowed from lawmakers' personal offices. The groups would have no separate budgets from which to fund, for instance, food at mealtime meetings.
"This is true reform," said Roberts, a senior House Administration Committee member. "No more laughing. No more chortling. No more passing the goodies out behind closed doors."
On a voice vote, the House Republican Conference adopted a resolution that calls for the House Administration Committee to impose the restrictions on the caucuses. Republicans will control the panel, 5 to 3, when it is reconstituted as the House Oversight Committee in January.
The briefing paper said that a 10-year review found $7.7 million of $35 million in caucus spending was undocumented. Eleven examples of questionable expenditures ranged into the thousands of dollars, including $20,000 in monthly tips from the California Democratic Congressional Delegation and $10,050 in petty cash expenses that the Congressional Black Caucus did not back up with receipts.
"It was a great deal of public funding being used for we do not know what," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.).
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) denounced the groups as "these taxpayer-funded special interest caucuses."
House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) vowed to fight the proposed restrictions because, he said, the Congress would be rendered "less informed, less effective and less able to serve the American people in ways that really matter."
The caucuses under attack, formally known as "legislative service organizations," range from party-based groups such as Republicans' Wednesday Group to issue-oriented ones such as the Congressional Steel Caucus and the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus. The bipartisan delegations from Pennsylvania and New York would also be affected.
Another affected caucus, the Democratic Study Group, has provided the most thorough legislative reports available on upcoming floor action to members, lobbyists and reporters. The House Republican Study Committee produces similar reports and would also be affected.
"I'm an equal opportunity terminator," Roberts explained. GOP lawmakers debated but did not endorse exemptions for the party study groups and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
More than 100 other caucuses that do not charge members for dues from their office accounts would not have to change the way they operate. Nor would the House Republican Conference or House Democratic Caucus.
The move to strip the caucuses of their financial independence comes at a time when recent increases in the demographic diversity of Congress has made the Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues the most prominent ones on Capitol Hill. Despite GOP assertions to the contrary, leaders of those caucuses criticized the proposed restrictions as a pointed assault on their influence by Republican lawmakers who are more white and male than their Democratic counterparts. The three caucuses are predominantly Democratic.
"No matter how hard they try they can't turn the congresswomen into Stepford wives," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), the senior woman in Congress, in a reference to movies about suburban men who turn their spouses into robots.
Rep. William "Bill" Clay (D-Mo.), a senior black lawmaker who has fought past efforts to restrict caucuses, said the efforts were aimed at the Black Caucus. "Oh, definitely," he said. "That's what they were trying to do, abolish the Black Caucus."
Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), a past Hispanic Caucus chairman, suggested that organization was being restrained because its members "got a little too uppity" during floor fights with Republicans over immigration issues. "They can do what they want, but they can't get rid of the Hispanic Caucus ability to confront them when they're mean, when they're extreme, when they're reactionary," he said.
Roberts responded, "This was in no way aimed at any one of the caucuses. I fully expect the work of the Black Caucus to continue."
The GOP proposals represent a second round of jeopardy for four caucuses formed in the 103rd Congress after temporary, or "select," committees on aging, hunger, illegal drugs and families were abolished.
"Most hungry people in America and overseas are children," said Rep. Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio), chairman of the Congressional Hunger Caucus. "I don't think the mandate sent to Washington by the American people included abandoning helpless children."
In a second day of organizing to take over the House, Republicans selected three northerners, two women and a moderate to round out their top leadership, which is dominated by lawmakers from the Sunbelt.
Rep. Christopher Cox (Calif.) defeated Rep. Jim Kolbe (Ariz.) to become chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. Rep. Susan Molinari (N.Y.), a moderate supporter of abortion rights, won as Republican Conference vice chair over Rep. Cliff Stearns (Fla.). Antiabortion groups had nightly slipped anti-Molinari literature under the Capitol Hyatt Hotel room doors of incoming freshman.
Rep. Barbara F. Vucanovich (Nev.) defeated Rep. Tim Hutchinson (Ark.) to become Republican Conference secretary. With Vucanovich and Molinari, Republicans have two women among their elected leaders -- twice the number in the Democratic leadership, although there are more female Democrats than Republicans.
House speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also sought diversity in new members of the Rules Committee, which controls the flow of legislation to the House floor. He named two women, Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) and Rep.-elect Enid Greene Waldhotz (Utah). Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.), a Cuban American, will be the panel's first Hispanic member.
Republicans rejected a proposal by incoming freshmen to reduce the maximum personal office staff from 18 to 16. But incoming freshmen pushed through a proposal to explore selling one of two House annexes, probably the larger one just down Capitol Hill. The caucuses under attack are among its occupants.
LEADERSHIP AND PARTY ORGANIZATIONS
* Democratic Study Group
* House Republican Study Committee
* House Wednesday Group
INFORMAL ORGANIZATIONS OF HOUSE MEMBERS
* Congressional Automotive Caucus
* Congressional Caucus on Children and Families
* Congressional Human Rights Caucus
* Congressional Hunger Caucus
* Congressional Narcotics Abuse and Control Caucus
* Congressional Rural Caucus
* Congressional Space Caucus
* Congressional Steel Caucus
* Congressional Textile Caucus
* Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus
* Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition
* Older Americans Caucus
CONGRESSIONAL BICAMERAL ORGANIZATIONS
* Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus
* California Democratic Congressional Delegation
* Congressional Arts Caucus
* Congressional Black Caucus
* Congressional Border Caucus
* Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues
* Congressional Hispanic Caucus
* Congressional Populist Caucus
* Congressional Sunbelt Caucus
* Environmental and Energy Study Conference
* Federal Government Service Task Force
* New York State Congressional Delegation
* Pennsylvania Congressional Delegation
Newt Gingrich, 51
Speaker of the House
First elected: 1978
Former history professor
Richard K. Armey, 54
First elected: 1984
Former economics professor
Tom DeLay, 47
First elected: 1984
Former businessman, state legislator
John A. Boehner, 45
Chairman, Republican Conference
First elected: 1990
Former plastics company president
Susan Molinari, 36
Vice chairwoman, Republican Conference
First elected: 1990
Former City Council member
Barbara F. Vucanovich, 73
Secretary, Republican Conference
First elected: 1982
Formerly operated speed-reading school and travel agency
Christopher Cox, 42
Chairman, Republican Policy Committee
First elected: 1988
Former Orange County lawyer, associate counsel in Reagan White House
Bill Paxon, 40
Chairman, National Republican Congressional Committee
First elected: 1988
Former local legislator and assemblyman
SOURCES: Republican Whip's Office, Almanac of American Politics