Webster’s Dictionary defines a “caucus” as “a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction.” While the definition is accurate, it doesn’t give one a real sense of how important a caucus is within the legislature. Under North Carolina law and the General Assembly’s rules, a caucus provides its members with some unique benefits.
There are basically two types of legislative caucuses. The first type of caucus is the political caucus. For example, every Democratic and Republican senator and representative belongs to their chamber’s caucus of legislators from the same party. Thus, as a Republican House Member, I’m a member of the House Republican Caucus. My Republican Senate colleague, Tom Apodaca, belongs to the Senate Republican Caucus. All of the House Members from Buncombe County are Democrats, and they belong to the House Democratic Caucus.
There are sometimes subsets of these caucuses. For example, some House and Senate Democrats belong to a sub-caucus called the NC Main Street Democrats, a group whose goal is to build a new working majority for the Democrats in the legislature. These “Main Street Democrats” say they want to promote a pro-business, pro-growth agenda. A subset of the House Republican Caucus is the House Republican Freshman Caucus — all freshman House Republicans belong to that caucus.
Periodically, an Unaffiliated legislator is elected or a legislator can choose to change parties. In the last session, Rep. Paul Tine (Dare) changed his party affiliation from Democratic to Unaffiliated and then asked to caucus with House Republicans. His request was granted, and he caucused with House Republicans, pursuant to House Republican Caucus rules, while being registered to vote back in Dare County as Unaffiliated.
The second type of legislative caucus is one that is organized around an issue or set of issues. I am one of the co-chairs of a joint County Caucus. Basically, senators and representatives who are former county commissioners, county managers, or county attorneys have formed a caucus to provide them with a forum to meet to discuss issues relating to counties. There are other caucuses that bring legislators together to discuss issues of mutual concern. For example, there is a caucus composed of legislators interested in international trade, and there is a caucus composed of legislators interested in promoting motor sports (i.e. racing).
So why are caucuses important?
First, political caucuses can be important because they sometimes allow legislators to meet behind closed doors without violating the Open Meetings law. Second, political caucuses can be important because they allow legislators to coordinate strategy and the funding of campaigns. Third, issue caucuses can be important because they allow legislators to meet with lobbyists and, perhaps have food and beverage served, without violating the gift ban.
The caucuses that draw the most media interest are the political caucuses. It is fairly common during the waning days of the legislative session to have the Majority Leader or Minority Leader in the House, for example, rise to announce that the Republican or Democratic caucus will meet. The majority caucus for the past five years was the Republican House Caucus, and it often met towards the end of a legislative session as its leaders tried to determine whether the votes were available to pass or defeat certain legislation or amendments.
The truism is that “things said in caucus stay in caucus,” meaning that no press and none of the public is present and that legislators can speak freely without fear of their comments being reported. Of course, recently the truism hasn’t been true. Issues debated in the House Republican Caucus have been quoted, usually out of context, in The Daily Haymaker, a right-wing electronic blog. Clearly some Republican House Member or Members have decided that they are going to go to the press with snippets of what was said, presumably for their own political gain.
While all official meetings of public bodies are required to be open with some enumerated exceptions, one of those exceptions is for caucuses. In other words, Republican and Democratic lawmakers can meet behind closed doors when meeting as a caucus or a caucus committee. For example, if I meet with most of the members of a committee on which I serve (except for conference committees), that should be an open meeting and I’d be violating the law without providing notice of the meeting and allowing for public access. On the other hand, I can meet with all of the Republican House Members in a closed meeting as part of the House Republican Caucus and there isn’t a violation of law.
The law provides that a legislator can get nothing of value from a lobbyist or a corporation that has a lobbyist. So a lobbyist isn’t even allowed to buy a legislator a cup of coffee at a morning meeting. However, if an issue caucus has a meeting, that prohibition doesn’t generally apply. If an issue caucus has a meeting and a lobbyist provides the pot of coffee or snacks for the assembled group of legislators, there is no violation of the gift ban.
My views on caucuses have changed a lot since I arrived in Raleigh. In my first and to some extent in my second term, my political caucus (House Republican Caucus) was hugely important to me. I got to know my colleagues, got to hear their views on issues, and sometimes shared my views. More recently, my political caucus is less important. Part of the reason for that is that some one legislator or some group of legislators are now leaking what goes on in the caucus to the press. If this is going to happen, I’m very much less inclined to candidly share my views.
Perhaps, as a freshman legislator, I had more need for the political caucus than I do now. In the waning days of the past session, I knew I needed to attend caucus meetings, but I caught myself a few times thinking I should have skipped a caucus meeting or even left the meeting early since nothing was being accomplished.
The issue caucuses occur much less often. Sometimes, they provide an opportunity for some socializing and discussion of issues. In my experience, any money spent on food or drinks is typically meager, but having coffee served at a caucus meeting early in the morning makes it more likely that I’ll get up and attend a meeting that might be important to my understanding of an issue.
Purists might argue that there should be no nonpublic meetings and no spending by lobbyists for any issue-related meetings. While I understand those arguments, I suspect that would only make it harder to get work done. Sometimes one needs to debate an issue without fear of having one’s words spread across the state — with social media this is certainly easy to do. Sometimes having some food or drink will help establish an atmosphere that allows legislators to understand issues better.
Not being a purist, my view is that caucuses serve a purpose, and I’m not supportive of changing the open meetings law or the gift ban law. However, I do expect I’ll find less value in caucuses with each passing legislative session.