CAUCUS, a face-to-face meeting of party members in any community or members of a legislative body for the purpose of discussing and promoting the affairs of their particular political party. Traditionally, the term "caucus" meant a meeting of the respective party members in a local community, for the purpose of nominating candidates for office or for electing delegates to county or state party conventions. Such a nominating caucus was used in the American colonies at least as early as 1725, particularly in Boston. Several clubs, attended largely by ship mechanics and caulkers, endorsed candidates for office before the regular election; these came to be known as caucus clubs. This method of nomination soon became the regular practice among the emerging political parties. It was entirely unregulated by law until 1866. Despite some legal regulation after that date, abuses had become so flagrant that control by party bosses came under increasing criticism. By the early 1900s the caucus had given way, first, to party nominating conventions and, finally, to the direct primary. By the late twentieth century a few states still permitted the use of caucuses for nomination of candidates for local offices or selection of delegates to larger conventions.
A second application of the term "caucus" is to the party caucus in Congress, which is a meeting of the respective party members in either house to organize, determine their position on legislation, and decide other matters. In general, this caucus has three purposes or functions: (1) to nominate party candidates for Speaker, president pro tem, and other House or Senate offices; (2) to elect or provide for the selection of the party officers and committees, such as the floor leader, whip, committee on committees, steering committee, and policy committee; and (3) to decide what action to take with respect to policy or legislation, either in broad terms or in detail.
Caucus decisions may be binding—that is, requiring members to vote with their party—or merely advisory. Whether formally binding or not, caucus decisions are generally followed by the respective party members; bolting is likely to bring punishment in the form of poorer committee assignments, loss of patronage, and the like. Party leaders have varied in their use of the caucus as a means of securing cohesive party action. During the late twentieth century all of the congressional caucuses or conferences underwent a revival, with much of the impetus for reform and reinvigoration coming from junior members.
A special application of the party caucus in Congress was the congressional caucus (1796–1824), which was the earliest method of nominating presidential candidates. No provision was made in the Constitution for presidential nomination, and no nominations were made for the first two presidential elections, since George Washington was the choice of all. But in 1796 the Federalist members of Congress met in secret conference and agreed to support John Adams and Thomas Pinckney for president and vice president, respectively; shortly afterward, the Republican members met and agreed on Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. In 1800 the respective party members met again for the same purpose, and after that date the congressional caucus met openly as a presidential nominating caucus. In the 1830s the national convention system succeeded the congressional caucus as the method of selecting presidential nominees.
Berhdahl, Clarence A. "Some Notes on Party Membership in Congress." American Political Science Review 43 (April 1949): 309–332; (June 1949): 492–508; (August: 1949): 721–734.
Bositis, David A. The Congressional Black Caucus in the 103rd Congress. Washington, D.C.: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 1994.
Davis, James W. U.S. Presidential Primaries and the Caucus-Convention System: A Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Robert L.Peabody/a. g.
cau·cus / ˈkôkəs/ • n. (pl. -cus·es ) 1. a meeting of the members of a legislative body who are members of a particular political party, to select candidates or decide policy. ∎ the members of such a body. 2. a group of people with shared concerns within a political party or larger organization. ∎ a meeting of such a group. • v. (-cused, -cus·ing) [intr.] hold or form such a group or meeting. ORIGIN: mid 18th cent. (originally U.S.): perhaps from Algonquian cau'-cau'-as'u ‘adviser.’