Editor's note: This is the first report in a three-part series investigating the role of congressional caucuses and the special interests that seek to influence them.

Slapping high steel tariffs on foreign exporters was the best thing to happen to big steel producers in the United States, say industry experts, who thank in part the political muscle of the House and Senate Steel Caucuses.

"Without the caucus, I truly believe that it would not have happened," said Tara Moser, director of government relations for the American Iron and Steel Institute (search), which represents steel producers, unions and manufacturers on Capitol Hill.

Eighteen months ago, President Bush enacted tariffs to enable domestic steel to compete with cheap foreign imports. The 115 members of the House and 37 senators who participate in the bipartisan steel caucuses helped push Bush toward the decision.

"It's essentially a real powerful, active caucus that puts necessary pressure when necessary, and on this issue of tariffs it was really important and critical for this industry," Moser said.

Members of the steel caucuses, whose constituents have been hurt by the decline in the industry, vote en bloc on issues relevant to the industry. They engage in hearings and member briefings and write "Dear Colleague" letters urging help to pass or defeat measures.

But steel is not the only industry caucus. Dozens of caucuses have been formed to help trade and business interests. Opposite the steel caucus is the Congressional Manufacturing Caucus (search) headed by Reps. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., and Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. Formed in July, the manufacturing caucus now has 62 members, many of whom hail from the so-called rust belt — states with companies that import and manufacture steel — and say that higher tariffs are killing businesses.

"[Steel producers] have already had 18 months and we feel that's enough time for them to get on their feet," said Manzullo spokesman Rich Carter. He said the CMC plans to fight members of the steel caucus head on over Bush's pending decision whether to repeal or modify the tariffs before they expire in 2005.

Caucus Mania

Nearly 300 caucuses are currently active on Capitol Hill, according to a Congressional Quarterly report. They include 60 trade and business caucuses, 25 international issue caucuses and dozens of others formed to promote specific policies, ideologies, racial and ethnic pursuits.

In 1995, the Republican-led House prohibited caucuses from using taxpayer funds for personnel, office space and materials. But that hasn't stopped the proliferation of these groups. Special interests like corporations, trade associations, unions and public policy think tanks help shoulder the cost by sponsoring Capitol Hill events, conferences and member trips, and even have formed their own foundations to raise money for and lobby lawmakers.

For instance, the House and Senate Congressional Internet Caucus (search) launched in 1997 to pursue a better understanding of the marketplace surrounding the Internet and the government's role in it, boasts 200 members and an advisory committee made up of nearly 200 public interest groups and trade associations.

The advisory committee, funded by the non-profit Internet Education Foundation (search), which raked in close to $600,000 for caucus activities in 2001, is comprised of executives from a "who's who" of the online world, including AOL, Microsoft, Amazon.com and Visa, companies that all have a stake in issues like online copyright protection, privacy and e-commerce.

Tim Lordan, policy director of the advisory committee, said committee members get involved with the caucus because it is the straightest line to lawmakers' ears.

"What I do is take the expertise of the advisory committee and try to make sense of it and package it in a way that is digestible for members," said Lordan, noting that no single issue binds the caucus and members often disagree on any one topic.

Influence Peddlers

But not everyone feels comfortable with the tight relationship between lobbyists and caucus members, and note that in many cases, lobbyists helped form the caucuses by enlisting interested lawmakers.

"There remains the suspicion that in some cases there are inside interests that could be dominated by the outside interests," said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., who served in Congress from 1971 to 1991. He recalled resigning from a tourism caucus because he felt that industry representatives were peddling regional tourism promotion in exchange for votes on key legislation.

Celia Wexler, a policy analyst for campaign finance watchdog Common Cause (search), said caucuses have their usefulness, but transparency is key to ensuring that outside interests don't funnel money to members in a way that skirts lobbying restrictions or corrupts the process.

"We have laws in place that are supposed to keep lobbyists at arm's length, so this is definitely a concern," Wexler said.

But a look at recent campaign finance filings indicates that it is hard to distinguish whether special interests target lawmakers because of their caucus memberships or lawmakers join caucuses because of their special interests.

For example, Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., co-chair of the steel caucus, represents a district in big steel territory, so it is no surprise he has already received  $9,100 from steel producer interests in this election cycle.

On the other hand, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., co-chair of the Internet caucus, has received little from the Internet industry. Instead, he has accepted thousands of dollars from the agricultural industry, which he represents in his district and as chairman of the House Agricultural Committee.

Shared Goals, Regional Interests

Adri Jayaratne, spokesman for Rep. Dale. E. Kildee, D-Mich., who co-chairs the Congressional Automotive Caucus (search) with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said most of the caucus' 66 members represent either districts with automakers or districts with secondary markets like auto parts. They don't need urging from outside interests to get on board.

"When it affects the industry and auto jobs, then we tend to get involved," Jayaratne said, adding that the caucus is currently working on fighting higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

Meanwhile, 76 labor-friendly lawmakers have jumped on board the newly-formed Caucus for Labor and Working Families (search). Started by Reps. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., the caucus seeks to help workers hard hit by economic downturn.

But labor and management are not always competing for influence among caucuses, said Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America (search). In the case of the steel caucus, steelworkers and corporate leaders share the same enemy — foreign exporters who are dumping cheap steel on the market.

"Many members don't necessarily have steel producing properties in their district or state, but many represent industries that are very dependent on steel," Hubbard said.