The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Conference

Congressional Hispanic Caucus

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus followed patterns established by constituency caucuses using an informal group to serve as a clearinghouse for information and as a networking hub. Before the emergence of these caucuses, such groups served social or relatively narrow policy ends. The success of the Congressional Black Caucus in effecting policy change and increasing Black Americans’ legislative input served as a model for other minority groups in Congress.48

Congressional Hispanic Caucus with President Jimmy Carter/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_14_chc_carter_1979_na.xml Image courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Library/National Archives and Records Administration Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus meet with President Jimmy Carter in 1978. One of the caucus’s first actions after its 1976 creation was to press the Carter administration to include more Hispanics in leadership positions in the federal government.

The contemporary Congress retains a number of devices to bring Members together in ways that attempt to transcend parties and committees. The Hispanic Caucus provides an alternative to the party organizations and committee networks in that it is based on issues of common concern to the Hispanic community. Junior Members can develop leadership skills and policy strengths, but for most Hispanic Members, the caucus provides the opportunity to sort out their priorities.49 Though they belonged to the same caucus, Hispanic Members often had a wide variety of agendas given their diverse constituencies. The caucus worked by unanimous consent: If unanimity could not be achieved, its members were free to vote individually. On one level, this recognized the group’s regional diversity enabling Members with different ideological and ethnic outlooks to reach a consensus in the caucus. The frequent inability to reach unanimous consent was attributed to the Hispanic Caucus’s early bipartisan composition and the diverse legislative interests of its members. The lack of cohesiveness often circumscribed its ability to exercise power as a distinct bloc. On issues such as immigration reform, border control, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Hispanic Members split because of their constituencies, their regional differences, and their ethnicities. When asked about the caucus’s effectiveness as a coalition in 1992, Edward Roybal commented, “The word coalition to me would mean … a group of individuals that finally take a united action in support or against any particular subject matter. The Hispanic Caucus can not take a united action because the Hispanic Caucus … [includes] Republicans.… On the other hand, there are individuals within the caucus that have taken the opportunity to be supportive of one another on various issues … [which] have nothing to do with the caucus. We do it as individuals and we have been able to form a coalition of a sort.”50

After its formation in December 1976, the Hispanic Caucus aggressively pursued its legislative interests. It criticized President James Earl (Jimmy) Carter after he nominated or appointed few of more than 600 Hispanic candidates to federal positions in his administration after the 1976 elections. Consequently, President Carter agreed to name more Latinos to administration positions. The caucus also worked to preserve programs for bilingual education and improve voter registration. Additionally, the caucus helped Members obtain desirable committee assignments, provided information to non-Hispanic Members with Hispanic constituencies, and brought public focus to issues that affected the Hispanic community as a whole.51

President Ronald Reagan with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_15_chc_reagan_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In this undated photo, President Ronald Reagan speaks to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC). The CHC held different stances on issues such as domestic spending, immigration, and Latin America than those of the Reagan administration.

In the 1980s, caucus chairmen such as Robert Garcia and Bill Richardson seized on the group’s increasing size to expand its institutional influence. During Garcia’s tenure (1980–1984), the caucus delivered a concerted response to immigration reform. According to one scholar, Garcia used his position as chairman of the House Census and Population Subcommittee to bring the issue of immigration reform and its effects on Hispanics to prominent attention during Hispanic Heritage Week in 1981. Chairman Richardson (1984–1985) sought maximum media exposure for the caucus’s opposition to an immigration reform bill and its first delegation trip to Latin America in December 1984. Richardson released a number of statements outlining the caucus’s position on democratization in Latin America.52

The caucus had a conflicted relationship with the Ronald W. Reagan administration (1981–1989). At times it fought the White House over funding for domestic programs, immigration reform legislation, and its policies toward Nicaragua and El Salvador. At other times it worked alongside Hispanic officials within the Reagan administration. A caucus staffer recalled working with Republicans in “the White House, the campaign, the transition office, Senate staff, House staff, national organizations, everyone.… Probably every Hispanic that was appointed within the administration, we probably had some contact with.”53 Other divisions within the caucus emerged during this period as one of its founders, Henry González, had left the group by 1987.54 Republicans Manuel Luján, Jr., of New Mexico and Delegate Ben Blaz of Guam also disagreed with their Democratic colleagues on a range of public policy matters.55

But during this period, the caucus gained additional institutional clout as its members held more-senior positions within the House committee and leadership structures.56 Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s membership in the caucus illustrated its growing diversity. Representative Luján, who retired at the end of the 100th Congress (1987–1989), served as Secretary of the Interior in the George H. W. Bush administration (1989–1993).57

The caucus began to publicize its legislative agenda in the 100th and 101st Congresses (1987–1991).58 Before the 102nd Congress (1991–1993), caucus members submitted legislation individually when the caucus could not come to a unanimous decision. Chairman Solomon Ortiz of Texas pursued a more active agenda. “It seemed to me that we just talked about issues, and then everyone would go about their business,” Ortiz recalled. “We weren’t getting any legislation passed. So I said, ‘Let’s go out and get some legislation passed.’”59 The caucus introduced bills such as the Hispanic Access to Higher Education Bill of 1991 (H.R. 3098) and the Voting Rights Improvement Act of 1992 (H.R. 4312; P.L. 102-344). Ortiz attributed the caucus’s activity and institutional savvy to its maturity: “It used to be that we were very new to Congress and really didn’t know our way around.… Now that a lot of us have been here for several years, we’re more knowledgeable and self-confident.”60

Solomon Ortiz of Texas/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_16_ortiz_solomon_na2.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration During Solomon Ortiz’s tenure as chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the group introduced the Voting Rights Improvement Act that became law in 1992. The Texas Representative attributed the caucus’ active agenda to the fact that its members had accrued years of service and become “more knowledgeable and self-confident.”
Hispanic Caucus growth reflected the rising number of Hispanics in the national legislature. At its inception, the caucus started with five Members, but grew to 14 at the start of the 100th Congress (11 voting Members, one Resident Commissioner, and two Delegates) and would remain constant until the start of the 103rd Congress (1993–1995).61 In 1993, its ranks swelled to 19 (17 voting Members and two nonvoting Members), a result of the 1992 reapportionment that created six new districts favorable to Hispanic-American candidates.

The 103rd Congress marked other notable changes. The caucus garnered two voting members of Puerto Rican descent (Nydia Velázquez of New York and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois), two Republicans (Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida and Henry Bonilla of Texas), and a Cuban-American Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Both Gutierrez and Menendez were the first Hispanic Representatives from their respective states. Velázquez was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress. The caucus’s institutional power increased when Esteban Torres, Ed Pastor, and José Serrano won seats on the House Appropriations Committee. Bill Richardson also became one of four chief deputy whips in the House.62

During the 103rd Congress, the caucus took advantage of its numbers and formed three task forces to better pursue its legislative agenda. Three members also sat on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which assigns Members to House committees. However, a number of issues divided the caucus along regional lines. For example, although the caucus worked to block a $1 billion unemployment bill in October 1993, Hispanic Caucus members split on their support of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).63 With the shift to Republican control in the 104th Congress, many of the Democratic Members with senior posts as committee and subcommittee chairs lost their positions and began working against many Republican initiatives.64

Nydia Velázquez of New York/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_17_velazquez_nydia_pc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Nydia Velázquez of New York, first elected in 1992, became the first woman of Puerto Rican descent to serve in Congress. Later, as chairwoman of the Small Business Committee (from 2007 to 2011), Velázquez became the first Hispanic woman to chair a full congressional committee.

The caucus’s relationship with President William J. (Bill) Clinton was cordial. It sought to protect the interests of Hispanic Americans and often disagreed with the President’s positions on social issues, but Clinton consulted the group about legislation, including a July 1993 meeting to discuss his budget proposal. The caucus also leveraged Hispanic electoral support for Democrats into policy concessions and pressured the President to use his influence to counter Republican legislative initiatives, particularly on welfare reform.65 The caucus grew stronger after welcoming three new members during the 105th Congress (1997–1999) and after the rise of Robert Menendez and Ed Pastor to House party leadership positions (Democratic Party Caucus vice chairman and chief deputy whip, respectively).66

The caucus had more of a mixed record with the George W. Bush administration. The decision to deregulate parts of the economy split the caucus between Members of Rust Belt states and Sunbelt Members, who benefited more from recent Bush policies. President Bush met with the caucus in April 2001 to discuss immigration, education, and small business issues, but the President and the legislators disagreed over their approaches to welfare reform, affirmative action, and education. By 2007 President Bush and Hispanic Members of Congress came together on changes to the immigration system, but that initiative was blocked by deadlock in the 109th and 110th Congresses (2005–2009).67

Congressional Hispanic Conference

For much of its history, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has had a greater number of Democrats than Republicans. Manuel Luján, Jr., of New Mexico, who was the caucus’s longest-serving Republican Member, found common ground with Democrats blocking immigration reform measures such as the Simpson–Mazzoli bill. As the numbers of Republican caucus members grew (Henry Bonilla, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart), the decision to let Members vote individually kept partisan tensions to a minimum.

Bipartisanship dissolved in the Hispanic Caucus in the late 1990s, eventually precipitating a formal split between Democrats and Republicans. In 1997, two Democratic members of the caucus visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. In protest of the visit and of the absence of criticism of repressive aspects of the Castro regime, two Republican caucus members—both Cuban Americans from South Florida—announced their departure from the group.68 From 1997 to 2003, Hispanic-American Republicans did not participate in the caucus, and a second episode led to the creation of a separate group entirely. In 2003, the Hispanic Caucus opposed President George W. Bush’s nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia because of Estrada’s record and perceived lack of sensitivity toward minority communities. The caucus also objected to Estrada’s nomination partly because the appeals judgeship was regarded as a stepping stone to the U.S. Supreme Court.69 Hispanic Republicans, who believed that the caucus’s animus toward Estrada resulted from political partisanship, formed the Congressional Hispanic Conference.70

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48See, for example, Susan Webb Hammond, Congressional Caucuses in National Policy Making (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998): 96–98.

49Hammond, Congressional Caucuses in National Policy Making: 74–79, 190; Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2011): 190. Participation in congressional service organizations offered another opportunity for Hispanic Members to gain leadership experience. Guam’s Robert Underwood was chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (1999–2001), and Dennis Cardoza of California was co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition (2005–2007).

50Quoted in David Rodriguez, Latino National Political Coalitions: Struggles and Challenges (New York: Routledge, 2002): 76–77; Vigil, Hispanics in Congress: 94–95; Arturo Vega, “Extrinsic Representation and Informal Groups in Congress—The Case of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” Records of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Members of the Caucus, Biographical Files Relating to Former Caucus Members, 1983–1994, Becerra, X. to Richardson, Bill, Box 1, Record Group 233, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereinafter referred to as RG 233, NARA).

51Ellen Hume, “Carter Agrees to Put Latins in More Top Posts,” 2 March 1977, Los Angeles Times: B3; “Hispanic Group Asks Carter for More Jobs,” 2 March 1977, New York Times: 14; Hume, “Carter to Name 13 More Latin Aides—Roybal,” 8 March 1977, Los Angeles Times: B3; Steven V. Roberts, “Hispanic Caucus Is Flexing Its Muscle,” 10 October 1983, New York Times: A14. Denice Darrow, “Congressional Hispanic Caucus Leads the Fight for Rights of Spanish-Speaking Citizens,” Reporter (February–March 1977): 43–44; “History of the Caucus,” History Files of the CHC, 1982–1994, Box 1, RG 233, NARA; Vega, “Extrinsic Representation and Informal Groups in Congress—The Case of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” RG 233, NARA. The articles do not clearly indicate if the caucus operated as a unified group or if individual members spoke on its behalf.

52Christine Marie Sierra, “In Search of National Power: Chicanos Working the System on Immigration Reform, 1976–1986,” in David Montejano, ed., Chicano Politics and Society in the Late Twentieth Century (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999): 140. See also “Statement of Bill Richardson, Re: Latin America-2/6/85,” Press Releases, 1982–1994, Box 1, RG 233, NARA; “Congressman Richardson Urges Measures to Strengthen Democracy in Latin America,” Legislative Update 1985–Folder 3 of 3, Caucus Monthly Publications 1985–1994, Box 1, RG 233, NARA.

53For examples of the caucus’s tepid relationship with the Reagan administration, see Karen Tumulty, “Reagan Record of Aiding Latinos Belittled,” 16 September 1983, Los Angeles Times: B4; “Hispanic Caucus Chief Asks Congress to Kill Civil Rights Agency,” 4 April 1984, Associated Press; Howard Kurtz, “HUD’s Abrams Apologizes to Hill Hispanic Caucus,” 16 May 1984, Washington Post: A10; Congressional Hispanic Caucus staffer quoted in Hammond, Congressional Caucus in National Policy Making: 143.

54It remains unclear why González left the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, but multiple sources have speculated. See John Burgess, “Nakasone Apologizes to U.S. for Remarks on Minorities,” 27 September 1986, Washington Post: A1; Congressional Record, House, 99th Cong., 2nd sess. (1 October 1986): 27460; Vigil, Hispanics in Congress: 123, endnote 11; Paul R. Wieck, “Different Interests, Personalities Hurt Unity of Hispanic Caucus,” in F. Chris Garcia, ed., Latinos and the Political System (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988): 304; Christopher Hitchens, “No Fool on the Hill,” Harper’s Magazine (October 1992): 84–92; and Paul Houston, “Rep. Gonzalez: He Packs a Punch When It Gets Tense,” 15 July 1990, Los Angeles Times: A1.

55Wieck, “Different Interests, Personalities Hurt Unity of Hispanic Caucus”: 303; Vigil, Hispanics in Congress: 92–93. Vigil does not list any specific pieces of legislation about which Blaz disagreed with the caucus.

56David Rampe, “Power Panel in Making: The Hispanic Caucus,” 30 September 1988, New York Times: B5; Vigil, Hispanics in Congress: 87.

57William Garland, “Caucus Works at Collective Voice,” 7 January 1990, Corpus Christi Caller-Times: A1.

58“Congressional Hispanic Caucus: Legislative Agenda for the 100th Congress,” Folder 7–1987, Press Releases, 1982–1994, Box 1, RG 233, NARA; Vigil, Hispanics in Congress: 93.

59Ricardo Chavira, “Hispanic Caucus Comes of Age,” Hispanic Business, May 1992.

60Chavira, “Hispanic Caucus Comes of Age.”

61Roberts, “Hispanic Caucus Is Flexing Its Muscle”; Spencer Rich, “Hispanics Claim 11 House Seats,” 11 November 1986, Washington Post: A5; Rampe, “Power Panel in Making: The Hispanic Caucus.”

62Kenneth J. Cooper, “Congress’s Hispanic Membership Likely to Grow 50% for Next Term,” 3 October 1992, Washington Post: A11; Kenneth J. Cooper, “An Experienced Freshman Class,” 5 November 1992, Washington Post: A1; Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1992 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 21.

63Kenneth J. Cooper, “Hispanic Caucus Shows Its New-Found Clout,” 2 October 1993, Washington Post: A4.

64Kenneth J. Cooper and Kevin Merida, “House Republicans Scrambling to Jettison Stereotypes of Party,” 11 December 1994, Washington Post: A29; Michael Remez, “Some See Little Room for Hispanics in GOP ‘Contract,’” 23 January 1995, Hartford Courant: A1; Christopher Lee, “Many Hispanics Unhappy with Welfare Law,” 29 August 1996, Dallas Morning News: 25A; Lizette Alvarez, “For Hispanic Lawmakers, Time to Take the Offensive,” 25 August 1997, New York Times: A14.

65Susan Milligan, “A Caucus with Clout,” 27 June 1993, New York Daily News: n.p.; Tim Lopes, “Hispanic Caucus Raps Welfare Bill,” 31 March 1995, Palm Beach Post (FL): 7A; Gary Martin, “Hispanics Balk at Clinton’s Cabinet Choices,” 21 March 1997, San Antonio Express-News: 6B; Rich Hein, “Clout Translates in Spanish, Too,” 8 October 1997, Chicago Sun-Times: 6; Alvarez, “For Hispanic Lawmakers, Time to Take the Offensive.”

66Susan Crabtree, “Hispanic Members Watch Their Political Clout Grow,” 11 September 2000, Roll Call: A26.

67For an overview of the George W. Bush administration’s policies toward Hispanic Americans, see Gary Gerstle, “Minorities, Multiculturalism, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” in Julian E. Zelizer, ed., The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press, 2010): 252–281. President Bush’s meeting with the caucus is described in “Latinos Give Bush Meeting Mixed Reviews,” 3 April 2001, Associated Press. The 2006 and 2007 immigration bill legislation debates are summarized in Congressional Quarterly Almanac 2006 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 14–3; and Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 2007 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2008): 15-9–15-11.

68Ed Henry, “Cuba Connection Jolts Hispanic Caucus as Two Republicans Quit,” 9 January 1997, Roll Call: 40.

69Darryl Fears, “For Hispanic Groups, A Divide on Estrada; Political, Geographical Fault Lines Exposed,” 20 February 2003, Washington Post: A4; Gary Martin, “Estrada Opposition Fueled New Caucus; Partisanship Irked Hispanic GOPers,” 20 March 2003, San Antonio Express-News: 4A; Sandra Hernandez, “Hispanics Show Political Diversity; Conservative Group Forms to Offer Another View of Latinos in Congress,” 27 April 2003, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel: 1F.

70Neil A. Lewis, “Battle Brews over a Hispanic Nominee to Appeals Court,” 24 September 2002, New York Times: A23; Fears, “For Hispanic Groups, a Divide on Estrada; Political, Geographic Fault Lines Exposed”; Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Battle over Judgeship Tests Congressman’s Loyalties to People and Party,” 15 March 2003, New York Times: A14; Martin, “Estrada Opposition Fueled New Caucus; Partisanship Irked Hispanic GOPers”; Frank Davies, “Three GOP House Members from Miami Help Organize New Hispanic Caucus,” 19 March 2003, Miami Herald: n.p.