Membership in LGBT caucus may decline in 114th Congress

February 4, 2015
In The News

The LGBT Equality Caucus is once again calling on U.S. House members to show solidarity with LGBT people by joining the organization — except this time there’s a price tag.

At the onset of the 114th Congress, the nearly seven-year-old caucus is for the first time charging for regular membership. The cost is $400 per year. The cost for being a co-chair has risen to $7,500 annually and for being a vice-chair to $2,100 a year.

The co-chairs of the LGBT Equality Caucus consist of the six openly LGB members of the U.S. House: Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif).

In a time of flat-funding for the budgets of House members, the new dues are a source of heartburn for staffers trying to make ends meet and cover salaries, office rent, franking and travel. The same $400 could be used to conduct a tele-town hall conference with constituents from D.C.

Capitol Hill sources told the Washington Blade the new dues may result in the caucus, which was 114 members strong in the 113th Congress, shrink in membership when new members are announced in the immediate future — and not because of retirements or Democratic losses.

One U.S. House aide said his boss’s renewal as a member of the LGBT Equality Caucus is in question because of the cost; another source familiar with Capitol Hill said members are declining to rejoin because of the fees and expected a “pretty significant drop-off in membership for this Congress.”

Brad Jacklin, executive director of the LGBT Equality Caucus, confirmed the new charges for membership in an interview with the Washington Blade, saying they amounted to “changes in structure” and a modest increase from the 113th Congress.

In the last Congress, regular membership was free; co-chairs paid $5,000 a year and vice-chairs paid $2,000 a year, Jacklin said.

Asked whether he expected a drop-off in caucus membership when the first names are announced, Jacklin replied, “I really don’t know at this time.”

Jacklin acknowledged a portion of the dues “do go to my salary.” According to Legistorm, a website that monitors congressional salaries, Jacklin made about $53,000 in salary in fiscal year 2014 — a figure he said was accurate.

But Jacklin also said the dues will go to benefits for members. A memo from the caucus dated Jan. 15 and provided to the Blade by Jacklin details each of these benefits, which include exclusive access to briefings, talking points for LGBT-related events, briefing memos on LGBT policy, press releases, newsletters and an email list.

Scott Overland, a Polis spokesperson, said the value of the caucus is important and worth the fees associated with membership.

“Caucuses play an integral role in advancing various policy positions in Congress, and it is very common that members pay dues to support them,” Overland said. “The LGBT Equality Caucus has been, and continues to be, a vital group in the fight for equal rights for all Americans and is fortunate to have someone as committed as Brad as its Executive Director.”

It’s not unusual for major caucuses on Capitol Hill, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to charge for membership. To keep the dues in perspective, the annual budget for a member of Congress ranges between $1 million and $1.5 million a year depending on the district and cost of living.

According to the website for Polis, membership in the LGBT Equality Caucus in the 113th Congress totaled 114 members. The seven co-chairs consisted of openly LGB members of the U.S. House at the time. (Former Rep. Mike Michaud, one of the seven, has since retired from Congress after his losing his bid to become the next governor of Maine.)

The remaining 114 consisted of the seven vice chairs — Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), former Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.), Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — and the 100 lawmakers within the U.S. House who signed on as regular members.

According to one House aide, the vice chairs for the LGBT Equality Caucus in the 114th Congress are already known and have increased since the 114th Congress. They are DeGette, Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Honda, Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Lee, Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Nadler, Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Schiff.

The one lawmaker who was a vice-chair in the 113th Congress, but not in the 114th Congress, even though he’s still in the U.S. House, is Grijalva. A House aide said Grijalva elected not to be co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus to focus on his new position as top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee and continue to be a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“Both of those roles require significant time commitments, so Rep. Grijalva’s decision was to ensure he could fulfill them to the best ability,” the House aide said.

The nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, has been encouraging members of the U.S. House to join the LGBT Equality Caucus.

In an email dated Jan. 13 and leaked to the Blade, David Stacy, HRC’s government affairs director, says to congressional staffers the organization “strongly encourages your boss” to join the LGBT Equality Caucus.

“While we have made incredible progress over the past decade, there is much work left to be done,” Stacy says. “This is a crucial moment in our struggle for full legal equality, and the Equality Caucus will be at the center of our efforts to advance fair-minded legislation. We strongly encourage every Member committed to equality for the LGBT community to join.”

Attached to the email is a letter dated Jan. 12 signed by each of the six chairs of the caucus. The missive acknowledges the new $400 fee for membership, but also touts the new benefits of membership that will build off the briefings, sign-on letters and bill tracking offered in years past.

“In the 114th Congress the Equality Caucus will continue to offer the benefits it provided previously; additionally, the Caucus will begin offering exclusive access to issue area memos to help Members develop LGBT policy initiatives, assist with drafting talking points and press releases, and provide resources to all Members of the Caucus to help promote their efforts on LGBT issues,” the letter says.