What is a caucus?

Rep. Mike Yantachka

While the first week of a new legislative biennium is filled with pomp and circumstance—the swearing in of new members, election of the speaker, appointments to standing committees and the inauguration of the governor—the next two weeks are generally spent introducing the committees to the agencies and departments they will be working with, as well as to nongovernmental stakeholders in the policy areas they will be dealing with. Most committees have a majority of members new to the committee, and it is important to ground everyone in the basics before the real work of considering legislation begins.

Most legislative work is done within the 14 standing committees, such as energy and technology, transportation, health care, etc. However, most legislators have interests beyond the areas in their own committee’s jurisdiction. Legislators with similar interests will often meet together in a caucus to discuss strategy, hear from interested parties and advise the standing committees on policy. There are at least 15 such caucuses in the Vermont House. Caucus meetings are held in the Statehouse at set times each week and are open to the public. Most are tri-partisan, i.e. not restricted to members of one political party.

There are, of course, the party caucuses: Democratic, Republican and Progressive. Every Tuesday morning the party caucuses meet to hear announcements, get introductions to bills that are being offered or that are scheduled for debate, and to hear from party leadership. While these caucuses are partisan, there is usually a member or two from the other parties to observe and report back to their own caucus.

Of the nonpartisan caucuses several are regional caucuses: Rutland County, Addison County, Franklin County, and Windham County. Like college, new members of the Legislature who haven’t served before are called “freshmen.” Relationships developed during orientation among the “class” members tend to persist and are helpful in bridging partisan divides. Hence, there is a Freshman Caucus that provides both a social and supportive framework for folks going through an accelerated learning process.

Then there are the working caucuses that are focused on interests that may span several policy areas. These include the Rural Economic Development Caucus in which issues common to rural areas are discussed to identify problems and suggest solutions. The Climate Solutions Caucus, as the name suggests, include members who are concerned about climate change and the effects it will have on Vermont. They discuss approaches to helping Vermonters reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Working Vermonters Caucus is oriented toward labor and business issues, giving working Vermonters a voice, and improving job opportunities and working conditions in Vermont. I am a member of and attend all three of these caucus meetings when I can.

Three other caucuses include the Youth Caucus, the Older Vermonters Caucus and the Legislative Women’s Caucus. Finally, a Parliamentary Review Caucus meets early every Friday as a class in parliamentary procedure. Knowing the rules of debate and procedure is very helpful during floor debates. The caucus system enables the Vermont Legislature to work more harmoniously and effectively because it helps to identify areas of agreement and improve working relationships among legislators with differing political philosophies.

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