Editor's note: This is the second report in a three-part series investigating the role of congressional caucuses and the special interests that seek to influence them.
While some members of Congress reveled this year in banning the word French from fries to protest France's refusal to join the United States in its war in Iraq, other members have taken a giant step in the other direction — forming one of the newest caucuses on Capitol Hill, the Congressional French Caucus (search).
"It was sort of a reaction to the current state of U.S.-French relations," said Bob Van Wicklin, spokesman for Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., who announced he was chairing the new caucus in October. Nearly 35 members have signed on — not to be apologists, said Van Wicklin, but to foster common interests in foreign issues, including trade and social policy.
"My boss has always been one to look forward and not back," said Van Wicklin. "He thought the relationship was too important to just let things simmer."
The new French caucus, which includes about two-dozen Republican and Democratic House members and six bipartisan Senate members, joins the ranks of an estimated 25 congressional caucuses formed to foster relations with a foreign country or address cross-border policies.
Proponents say it’s the easiest way for members — many of whom have a constituency tied to a country or region or just a personal or policy interest in faraway places — to stay informed about new trade agreements and other global issues in a world that seems to get smaller every day.
"I think the role of congressmen is to know as much as they can about everything — expanding their knowledge of the issues and world affairs by becoming a member of a caucus," said one Republican House aide whose boss is a member of no less than 10 international caucuses.
"I don't know why there would be any criticism of that," the aide said.
But plenty of suspicion swirls around the creation and activities of these foreign-oriented forums.
While many of the older country caucuses have long addressed issues of concern to constituents who come from places like Greece, Armenia and Israel, new caucuses have emerged that give foreign companies and governments, saddled by more restrictive rules than domestic lobbyists, a seat at the legislative bargaining table, observers say. The formation of international caucuses has helped them push free trade agreements that may not be particularly advantageous to U.S.-based companies and their workers.
"A lot of the impetus for these caucuses is coming from multinational corporations and foreign embassies," said Scott Paul, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO (search), one of the largest and most influential labor unions in the country.
Paul said the outside corporate interests tend to find members who have ethnic constituencies or have a certain business located in their districts, and then encourage them to form the caucus.
He pointed to the recent formation of the House Singapore Caucus (search), the Congressional Morocco Caucus, and a host of groups formed around interests in areas where free trade agreements are currently on the table and waiting for approval on Capitol Hill.
The U.S.-Brazil Caucus, for instance, was launched in 1999 with the direct participation of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. More recently, the U.S.-Mexico Caucus was set up to allow members to deal solely with trade issues, aides said.
Critics say the international caucuses give foreign interests and corporations more access to lawmakers than the average voter and constituent.
"I don’t think there is any question that the resources by multinational corporations far outstrip the resources many of us have," said Paul, who added that these companies are giving big money to members of Congress.
Congressional rules prohibit caucuses from using public funding for their operations, so often outside sponsors contribute cash or foundations are formed to raise money for caucus operations. The money is spent in part to support the activities of caucuses or to sponsor member junkets. Some of it also goes into political action committees.
Others say committee work still outranks a member's caucus affiliations, and that role is what draws special interest money to lawmakers. Contributions to caucuses are not nearly as worthy of questions about undue influence, said one House aide who did not want to be named.
"All caucuses are formed with an outside interest in mind," she said.
For instance, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., who for years has been very active in issues relating to the former Soviet Union, works closely with foreign governments and corporate interests to open up trade to the depressed Eastern European marketplace, said Weldon spokesman Bud DeFlaviis.
He does this by co-chairing the Congressional Ukraine Caucus.
"I don't think opening up markets to the Ukraine and other former Soviet states is a bad thing," DeFlaviis said.
Weldon also co-chairs the House Singapore Caucus with Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Texas, who has a Singapore-based company in his home state.
International caucuses are formed for a variety of reasons, not just trade, said Aaron Lewis, spokesman for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who co-chairs the Congressional Taiwan Caucus (search) with Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla.
Lewis said that from the start, the caucus, formed in April 2002 and now with 117 members, was heralded as a sign of solidarity with the Taiwanese people and an effort to play a role in monitoring cross-strait discussions between Taipei and Beijing. Fourteen members of the Taiwanese legislature were joined at the press conference announcing the launch.
"Human rights is a huge impetus for this caucus," said Lewis. "It's bigger than just business with Taiwan."