Whatever their focus, caucuses are "an all-purpose advertising tool for members," said Steven S. Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.
They offer the means to appeal to particular interests back home and illustrate that lawmakers are standing up for various causes, something that
can translate into campaign donations.
Caucuses vary in their effectiveness. Smith points to the political factional caucuses, such as the Democratic conservative Blue Dogs, as among the more important players. "They tend to be coalition leaders. Their chairs are consulted and they bargain with the leadership," he said, noting that single-issue caucuses, meanwhile, are increasingly narrow.
"There have been many times when the Blue Dogs have been pivotal to passing legislation," Smith noted, in part because they have the ability to mobilize their members.
Some don't let the serious work of influencing legislation get in the way of fun, even when there's a purpose in mind.
Take the Friends of Canada caucus, formed just over a year ago by Rep. Henry Brown Jr. (R-S.C.) to "spread good maple across town," said legislative assistant
Chris Berardini. The group focuses on border security, tourism and energy.
So why does a South Carolinian head the caucus? In a name, Myrtle Beach.
The caucus recently participated in the 47th Annual CanAm Days in the South Carolina beach city, a popular destination for Canadian tourists. All of the caucus
member were invited to attend, but turnout was low because it fell on St. Patrick's Day weekend, a staff member said.
Brown, meanwhile, represented the caucus in his home district and entertained 15 members of the Canadian Parliament, three ministers and the U.S. and Canadian ambassadors. This is the first time the caucus participated in the event.
Brown also chairs the Shellfish Caucus, a role that complements his position as the senior Republican on the Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans Subcommittee.
The Shellfish Caucus's more popular claim is its social events. Former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) made Mardi Gras parties occasions not to missed, but the future of the caucus's legendary shrimp boils is uncertain under new ethics rules.