Dewonkify – Caucus

The Word: Caucus

Definition: A caucus is defined as a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction, usually to select candidates or to decide on policy. The term is also used to describe a group of people united to promote an agreed-upon cause.

Used in a Sentence: Members of the Youth Sport Safety Caucus hosted a briefing with leading health professional organizations to discuss ways to prevent concussions in women’s soccer.

History: According to William Harris, a professor at Middlebury College, “the term Caucus is first attested in the diary of John Adams in 1763 as a meeting of a small group interested in political matters, but William Gordon’s ‘History of the Independence of the United States of America, 1788’ speaks of the establishment of caucus political clubs as going back fifty years earlier than his time of writing in 1774, so a first-occurrence date for the caucus can be estimated in retrospect as early as 1724.”

Dewonkify – Inside the Beltway

The Word/Phrase: Inside the Beltway

Definition: “The Beltway” is a term used to describe the geographic area around Washington, DC, that is encircled by Interstate 495. “Inside the Beltway” refers to political and U.S. Government activities and work that occur in the greater Washington, DC, area.

Used in a Sentence: “Verizon’s quick response has more to do with its brand reputation with customers and inside the Beltway than liability, sources said.” From “Verizon on offense behind the scenes,” by Anna Palmer, Politico, June 6, 2013.

History: The Capital Beltway (Interstate 495) was created in 1964, but it is unclear when the term “inside the Beltway” originated. However, Nicholas M. Horrock wrote in the New York Times on October 12, 1975, that,  “It can be said that the myriad doubts about the Warren Commission’s findings in the death of President Kennedy represent a reverse situation. The doubts would never be taken seriously until they were inside the Beltway, in the halls of Congress, the courts and the White House.”

Are Earmarks Gone Forever?

An earmark is defined as a “provision in Congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program, or organization.[1]” While Congress currently has a moratorium on the “formal” earmark process, informal earmarking still happens. The banning of earmarks was a popular campaign theme over the past several election cycles. Candidates from both parties have derided the use of these “special projects” as representative of everything that is wrong with Washington, DC. While it is true that the process was badly in need of reform and transparency, an outright ban on earmarks is not a realistic long-term solution.

The earmark moratorium was aimed at improving the process of approval for annual appropriations bills, increasing accountability, and providing more transparency. However, it can be argued, the ban has accomplished none of these objectives. Congress has been unable to pass spending bills with any regularity (some say the lack of “sweetners” has hindered horse-trading and compromise), and there is no process in place for knowing when Members of Congress support or oppose funding for specific programs in a spending bill.[2]

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, “the ban is showing results… the number of earmarks dropped by 98.3 percent, from 9,129 in fiscal 2010 to 152 in fiscal 2012, and the cost of such projects fell by 80 percent, from $16.5 billion to $3.3 billion, the lowest amount since 1992.” However, Members of Congress continue to work to advance projects for specific companies or organizations in their home districts outside of the earmark process and without the benefit of a formal disclosure process.

In a July 26, 2012 Bloomberg News report titled “Earmark Ban Failing to Stop Lawmakers Requests for Spending,” “Even with a two-year ban on earmarks, or pet projects that often can’t be justified as national priorities, the [recent Defense Appropriations bill] was the latest evidence that Members of the U.S. Congress are still finding ways to deliver the goods for their constituents.”

A Bloomberg News editorial, “Bring Earmarks Back,” offered a new and interesting approach to the earmark process, which would include the disclosure of the names of the project sponsor, a written rationale for the funding request, a statement that the Member of Congress will not benefit financially from the project, and support from another Members of Congress from the other political party.

Earmarks are not going away completely, but a formal and open process could ensure funding is going towards worthwhile initiatives.


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/earmark

[2] Brannen, Kate. “Earmark Ban Leads to Drop in Transparency among Lawmakers.” Federal Times 9 June 2012, News Watch sec.: 10. Print.

Dewonkify – CR (Continuing Resolution)

Word: CR/Continuing Resolution

Definition: Legislation to provide budget authority for federal agencies to continue operating until the 12 regular appropriations spending bills are passed. Congress passes a continuing resolution (CR) in the form of a joint resolution at or near the beginning of a new fiscal year (starting on October 1), or when the previous CR is about to expire, and it funds the government at or near current levels for a specific length of time.

Used in a Sentence: “Congress’s Use of Continuing Resolutions is a Common Practice” (http://www.nationaljournal.com/congress-legacy/congress-s-use-of-continuing-resolutions-is-a-common-practice-20120911)

History: Since 2000, Congress has passed CRs ranging anywhere from one day to 157 days, with the highest number of CRs signed in 2001, when 21 CRs were passed. Standoffs between political parties or between the president and Congress may lead to the necessity of a CR for the government to remain functional. In 1995, the most noteworthy issue regarding funding the government through a CR occurred when a clash between the Republican Congressional leadership and President Clinton led to a shutdown of the federal government for a total of 28 days.

What It Means: Unless the 12 annual appropriations bills that Congress must pass are approved by the House and Senate and signed by the President, CRs are necessary to continue normal government operations. The government is currently operating on a CR that is effective from October 1, 2012 to March 27, 2013, encompassing nearly 6 months of fiscal year 2013. On March 6, 2013, the House voted 267 to 151 on a $982 billion CR that would continue funding through the end of the fiscal year. It maintains many post-sequestration spending levels while protecting some defense and veterans’ programs. The Senate is expected to move on its own version of a CR next week, which is likely to include more funding flexibility for non-defense discretionary programs. The two chambers have until the spring recess to agree on a new CR.

**Gwen Rathbun contributed to this posting.

The 113th Congress Kicks Off

Thursday, January 3, 2013 marked the official start of the 113th Congressional Session and swearing in of new Members of Congress. The House of Representatives will have 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats, and 2 vacancies – Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-IL-2) stepped down after winning reelection and Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC-1) was appointed to the Senate to fill the seat of Sen. Jim DeMint (R) who recently resigned. The United States Senate will have a Democrat majority with 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and 2 independents that will caucus with the Democrats.

There are 82 new Members of the House of Representatives, including 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans. The United States Senate welcomed 14 new Senators sworn into office: 9 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and 1 independent (who will be caucusing with the Democrats). New Senators include Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, who replaces the late Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI).

The 113th Congress will have more women serving as voting members than any other time, including 78 in the House (58 Democrats and 20 Republicans) and 20 in the Senate (16 Democrats and 4 Republicans). Additionally, the United States Senate for the first time will have a majority of Senators (52) who previously served in the House of Representatives.

Congressional Retirements: What happens when you lose your Congressional Champion?

As reported in the Washington Post, 25 members of the House of Representatives and 10 Senators will be retiring at the end of the 112th Congress. The Post reports that more incumbents are retiring from Congress than at any other point in the past 16 years.

While a high number of Congressional retirements are not uncommon in a presidential election year, retirements require advocacy organizations to reevaluate their legislative strategy when one of these retirements includes a legislative champion. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It is important to remember that just because your champion is leaving Congress, he or she does not stop caring about the issue. The Member of Congress can still provide guidance and sometimes lead the effort to identify and develop a new Congressional champion. It takes a great deal of time to cultivate a Congressional champion, but with each election, there are new Members of Congress with the potential to be a leader for your issue.