PurposesBy establishing and participating in congressional member and staff organizations – such as legislative caucuses, commissions, working groups, study conferences, coalitions, and staff associations – members who are not on the relevant committees have opportunities to hold hearings, briefings, and events. While these organizations may not have formal jurisdiction or oversight responsibilities, they allow a sustained focus on specific issues, and can produce a profound impact in the target country. These organizations also enable members and staff to identify those with similar interests, share information, develop strategies, and pursue common legislative objectives
TypesHistorically there have been three types of congressional organizations: Legislative Service Organizations, which collect fees from member offices, occupy Capitol Hill office space, publish studies and reports, and hire their own staff; Congressional Membership Organizations, which have no budget, hiring or printing authority, franking privileges, or office space; and Congressional Staff Organizations, which are similar to the latter. Legislative Service Organizations were eliminated in 1995; some established external, independent foundations or institutes to carry on their work. The Committee on House Administration maintains a list of official Congressional Membership Organizations and Congressional Staff Organizations.
In addition, several human rights-related commissions have been established by statute, including the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission), the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the House Democracy Partnership (formerly known as the House Democracy Assistance Commission), and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Each has a different structure and funding source.
- Don’t join caucuses in name only. Sign on to caucus letters, attend caucus briefings, and suggest ideas for events. Designate a staffer to be in charge of all caucus activities. CMOs and CSOs offer numerous opportunities for likeminded individuals to communicate and work together.
- For members who do not serve on relevant committees or are very low in seniority, caucus briefings and commission hearings can be a good opportunity to ask questions, develop expertise, make statements, and gain media attention.
- Caucus and commission staff will often help Members plan foreign travel, develop contacts with local defenders of rights and freedom, write hearing questions, and compile briefing books.
- Co-chairs of commissions should consult regularly with commission members to obtain input and encourage participation. Make sure that briefings or hearings are held on issues of common interest and at times that most members can attend.
- Sending a letter on a commission’s letterhead may help boost its legitimacy and influence.
- Asking a commission to co-host a briefing may help to build visibility and increase attendance.
- Use caucuses to raise the profile of a constituency in your district facing international human rights challenges.
- Many Relevant Caucuses. The Committee on House Administration maintains a list of official Congressional Membership Organizations and Congressional Staff Organizations. The 115th Congress has registered an International Religious Freedom Caucus, founded in 2006 and currently co-chaired by Reps. Trent Franks and Juan Vargas, as well as several country-specific caucuses. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Rob Portman lead a Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking.
- Join or Form a Caucus. In spring 2013, a bipartisan group of 30 Representatives, led by Democrat Judy Chu and Republican David Valadao, created the Sikh Congressional Caucus. The Caucus has helped bring visibility to the Sikh community in the U.S. and around the world.
- Congressional Delegates Raise Human Trafficking Concerns. Seven members of the Helsinki Commission traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, in July 2016 for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). According to the Helsinki Commission’s website, “At the Annual Session, which brought together nearly 300 parliamentarians from 54 of the 57 OSCE participating States, U.S. lawmakers introduced several successful resolutions and amendments targeting current challenges facing the OSCE region, ranging from human trafficking to discrimination and anti-Semitism to the abuse of Interpol mechanisms to target political opponents and activists.”
- Adopt a Prisoner. In December 2012 the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in conjunction with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Amnesty International USA, launched the Defending Freedoms Project to support prisoners of conscience around the world. The project aims to increase attention to human rights abuses by encouraging members of Congress to advocate on behalf of prisoners of conscience, wherever they may be found. The project allows members to stand in solidarity with prisoners of conscience, let them know they have not been forgotten, and encourage accountability for unjust treatment.