WASHINGTON -- Rep. Beryl Anthony, who plans to launch a public finance caucus this month, may have to fight an uphill battle to make his group an effective voice for tax-exempt bonds in Congress, Capitol Hill watchersw said last week.
The main obstacle the Arkansas Democrat face is that the reputation of caucuses as repositories of information on various issues has been tarnished by a proliferation of caucuses that do little substantive work, municipal lobbyists said.
At the same time, he also faces the suspicions of some congressional leaders, who regard these groups as ways for members to circumvent the committee system in promoting issues that interest them, the municipal lobbyists said.
Even so, many proponents of tax-exempt bonds say they are still excited by the prospect of a caucus devoted to public finance. If Rep. Anthony succeeds in making his caucus a credible organization, they say, the group could be an effective vehicle for educating members of Congress about tax-exempt bonds and the problems caused for the municipal market by various bond curbs in the tax law, they said.
Rep. Anthony, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, first mentioned the idea of putting together a public finance caucus in March. He is expected to announce its formation this month, an aide to the congressman said.
The challenge to Rep. Anthony's group "will be to demonstrate their seriousness of purpose, commitment, and willingness to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the nitty-gritty work of what is a technical, and frankly dull subject, one that is hard to get members interested in," said a former congressional aide.
Under congressional rules, caucuses simply are groups of lawmakers who unite because they share an interest in a particular issue. Most caucuses -- including the one Rep. Anthony plans to form -- are informal, but a few organize themselves formally into "legislative service organizations," which are granted a budget, office space, and staff separate from those of their individual members.
Sources familiar with the way caucuses operate said members usually try to form informal caucuses, rather than legislative service organizations, because the latter must adhere to a rigid set of rules and reporting requirements.
The oldest caucus still in existence is the Democratic Study Group, a legislative service organization that began in 1959. Over the next 11 years, about a dozen more caucuses came into existence, according to a May report on caucuses by the Congressional Research Service. But since 1970, there has been an explosion in the number of caucuses, with at least 115 operating now, the report says.
Their proliferation has tarnished their luster on Capitol Hill in the eyes of some. "People do see caucuses as a vehicle for press releases and public relations, and not as a vehicle for substantive work," said the former Hill aide. many only exist so that their members can give the appearance of being interested in a particular issue, the lobbyist added.
For those that do become active, another pitfall exists. Many caucuses are formed by members "who have particular interests that they feel aren't being addressed by specific committees," said a municipal lobbyist who asked not to be identified. Such caucuses "almost compete with the committee system," with the result that "a lot of committee chairmen are not happy with the increase in caucuses" and may seek to block their effectiveness, the lobbyist said.
But sources also acknowledged that a number of caucuses have been able to establish themselves as important resource tools for members of Congress to use when they want to learn about a particular issue. They cited the 15-year-old Northeast-Midwest Caucus as an example of one that has achieved a great deal of respect on Capitol Hill.
The group does research, organizes letter-writing campaigns, monitors legislation of interest to its members, and is generally "a resource vehicle you can draw on to find out what's coming up," said a state and local lobbyist.