If you want to exercise big influence in Washington, think small.
There are hundreds of groups of US legislators huddled around special interests in the Congress, including several dozen organized around energy-related issues. These groups, sometimes called congressional caucuses, are often the first place an industry group will go to start the conversation on a key issue, whether it be protecting US refiners or promoting oil and gas exploration off the Atlantic coast.
The size of these “Congressional Member Organizations”— their formal name — can be as small as a handful of legislators pushing a specific issue.
The “Congressional Rock and Roll Caucus,” for instance, was formed in 2012 by a legislator whose district includes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio.
There are other narrowly-focused groups, centered around such issues as bicycles, cement, horses, hockey and cranberries.
Energy-related caucuses include those focused on biofuels, US refining, the use of algae as a fuel source, and LNG exports.
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The Congressional Carbon Dioxide Enhanced Oil Recovery (CO2-EOR) Caucus was formed last year by three congressmen, including Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi.
Harper’s district includes the Kemper Project, a Southern Company power plant that pairs a gas-generation unit with a coal-generation unit. The carbon dioxide emitted will be captured, then sold to companies who plan to pump it into oil reservoirs to coax out previously unrecoverable crude.
The issue of carbon capture and sequestration comes before the US Congress in may forms, from providing money to fund extensive research at national laboratories, to providing tax credits for companies adopting the nascent technology.
The aim of the CO2-EOR caucus is to educate members who will be asked one day to vote on such matters.
“The general idea is to get industry and congressional leaders together to help each other learn what the issues are surrounding enhanced oil recovery and then to work on those challenges,” said Jordan Downs, deputy policy director for Rep. Harper.
Unlike some groups, which come together to push a specific bill, the CO2-EOR caucus is playing the long game, focusing on raising the profile of the issue.
“There are very few issues that are solved overnight or in two months or maybe even two years,” Downs said. “A lot of it is education.”
Slow and steady wins this race
The groups host informational meetings, often involving pizza and a guest speaker. A large percentage of the time, the meeting is attended by staff members, who then go back and keep their congress member up to speed.
“The engagement level of staffers is key,” said Anne Korin, who has presented to caucuses about alternative transportation fuels on behalf of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.
“Smart, focused, and passionate staffers that have the blessing of their boss can move mountains, and caucuses help them — through educational events, group letters, and so forth—get the word out and mobilize support for a given issue.”
These groups can often be the first place to go when an issue arises in Congress that needs immediate attention, said Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association.
“The caucuses would be the first line of defense or offense,” Dinneen said. Caucus members, such as those of the Congressional Biofuels Caucus, are “most likely the folks that who are going to support your agenda — folks you go to first to alert them of a threat or invite them to proactively pursue a legislative agenda. They have already identified themselves as being supportive of your cause, so let’s go there first and you build from there.”
Randall Luthi, the president of the National Ocean Industries Association, has presented to several such groups, including the Atlantic Offshore Energy Caucus. The group was formed last year to “to advance policies that explore and expand energy production in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf.”
While the members who formed the caucus are already sold on the idea of energy development, Luthi said talking to them can help spread accurate information to other legislators.
“It’s impossible to reach every member of the hill on every issue,” Luthi said. “Our job is to educate members of congress about our issues, to share with them the information we know. You want to make sure the information is consistent.
“Then you also have given them information to go talk to their colleagues about.” — Gary Gentile