Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What is a caucus, anyway?

You can use the political term “caucus” as a verb, noun or something exotic like a past participle, which are apparently made in Switzerland by the scientists slamming atoms together at the speed of light.
Here’s a real-life example that we are NOT making up:
“We’re going to caucus now, because the caucus hasn’t caucused on that bill yet.”
If you are an average citizen back home, that sentence will rightfully confuse you. However: This is actually sort of important as to how politics works.
Let’s pull back the curtain a little and give you a peek at how this works.
The word itself is still a mystery
We first thought “caucus” was the Latin word for “a group of people wearing uncomfortable clothes and drinking bad coffee while they talk about subsection 3 of RCW 42.03.010”
But no, that is wrong. Though the root meaning of the word is shrouded in mystery.
Some say it comes from the Greek kaukos and Latin caucum (drinking vessel). Others insist it comes from the Algonquian caucausu (advisor). Still others claim that Algonquian is quite possibly a word we made up two seconds ago.
Anyway, during the 18th century, which is actually the 1700s – also confusing – Americans started using “caucus” to refer to a political meeting.
Presidential caucuses: the same but different
On March 3, Washington state held presidential caucuses, which sounds like “a political meeting that involves a bunch of Secret Service types and the leader of the free world.” But that’s not it.
In the presidential caucuses, people show up at their local precincts, talk about the candidates and then they vote for delegates. A presidential caucus is quite different from a presidential primary, where you mark your ballot at your kitchen table and mail it in. No talking. No debate. No bad coffee and Krispy Kremes.
In politics, lawmakers uses caucuses to get organized and try to pass laws. The U.S. House and Senate has approximately 5.83 bazillion caucuses. Click here to see a list of them. Do not hit PRINT, which would kill many trees.
Here in Olympia, we don’t have so many caucuses. You have the main four: the House Democratic Caucus, House Republican Caucus, Senate Democratic Caucus and Senate Republican Caucus. That sounds like a lot, but it’s really simple: the Democrats in the House and Senate, then the Republicans in the House and Senate.
The House Democratic Caucus Room
Then there are smaller caucuses that are created – or die off – as the years go by.
You’ve got bipartisan caucuses arranged around geography, like the Coastal Caucus.  Then there are caucuses based on a shared interest in an issue like the Ferry Caucus (state ferries), the Working Families Caucus and a Women’s Caucus.
Some caucuses are bipartisan, which is a fancy word meaning lawmakers from both parties belong.
Other caucuses are bicameral, which is an even fancier word for “a political group with members from the House and the Senate.”
The rarest of caucuses is both bipartisan and bicameral. There is no such thing as tripartisan or tricameral, though the great state of Nebraska does have a unicameral legislature – one chamber of lawmakers instead of a House and Senate.
It’s all part of America’s great diversity of democracy, the product of urge to experiment and try different things. There’s probably an Algonquian word for that.

To read this post in Spanish, click here.