The previous 115th Session of Congress, a two-year period encompassing 2017-2018, was one of the most successful in the 22 years of the congressional Baltic Caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. If current trends continue, 2019 could be record-breaking.
The House Baltic Caucus and the Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus were both founded in 1997 by the two most prominent American members of Congress of Lithuanian heritage, Senator Richard Durbin and Congressman John Shimkus, both of Illinois. Senator Durbin had served previously in the House of Representatives (from 1983-1997), and in a group of Members of Congress that had supported the Baltics then (the Ad Hoc Monitoring Committee on the Baltic States and Ukraine, which existed before the restoration of independence in 1990-1991). After he won election to the upper chamber in 1996, Senator Durbin decided to initiate a Senate Baltic Freedom Caucus (SBFC) there. The person who coincidentally won Durbin’s Illinois House seat, John Shimkus, agreed also in 1997 to launch a House Baltic Caucus at that time.
Both caucuses grew rather quickly in the early years, and by the early 2000s were up to their highwater marks – 15 members in the Senate caucus, and close to 80 in the House caucus. This may be attributed largely in part to an active time in Baltic advocacy and interest in the Baltic countries during the NATO enlargement campaign, which was at its most intense from 1997-2004.
Following NATO accession 15 years ago on March 29, 2004, Caucus membership waned slightly, but stabilized. Caucuses are more common and more formal in the House than in the Senate, so a 15-member Senate Caucus was an impressive achievement. However, due to the regular course of retirements and election losses in the election cycle every two years, membership in the SBFC eventually dropped to seven by early 2018. It has since increased to eleven.
2018 – 2019 has been significant for the SBFC for three reasons. First, founding member Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa agreed to join Senator Durbin as the co-chair of the Caucus. There had not been a Republican co-chair since Senator Gordon Smith left Congress in 2009 after his election defeat. Senator Grassley has shown great interest in working with Senator Durbin to make the Caucus an active endeavor. Within the past year Oregonian Jeff Merkley, Arkansans Tom Cotton and John Boozman, and Mainer Susan Collins have joined the Senate Caucus, the first Senators to join in many years. Other SBFC members are Senators Stabenow and Peters of Michigan, Feinstein (California), Murphy (Connecticut), and Menendez (New Jersey).
A “Dear Colleague” letter signed by the two co-chairs was issued on February 27, 2019 to encourage other Senate colleagues to join the Caucus. The SBFC also co-hosted a conference on the topic of “Malicious Use of Social Media: From Russian Disinformation to the Black Market of Manipulation Services” in the Senate featuring experts from the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence (StratCom COE in Riga, Latvia) on February 14, 2019.
With respect to the U.S. House of Representatives, the House Baltic Caucus (HBC) is led by Reps. John Shimkus (R-Illinois), and Adam Schiff (D-California), who became the Democrat co-chair in 2013. There was explosive growth in HBC membership during the 115th Congress. Twenty-one members joined in 2017 and another seven in 2018. This was the largest increase in membership since the Caucus was formed. The HBC reached its peak membership of 78 by the end of summer last year. There are invariably declines in the numbers due to retirements and primary or election losses, and occasional resignations. Two examples of the latter are former Reps. Xavier Becerra, who resigned in early 2017 to become California’s Attorney General, and Jim Bridenstine, who resigned in April 2018 to become NASA Administrator. There was also the unfortunate death of a member last year, that of Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, who died in March.
By the end of 2018, the Caucus had lost an additional 13 members – most were retirements (Reps. Brady, Ellison, Goodlatte, Gutierrez, Levin, Poe, Reichert, Royce), primary losses (Crowley, Bordallo), and three general election losses – Rohrabacher, Mike Bishop, Roskam. One HBC member, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pennsylvania), resigned in January 2019.
Following the 28 members who joined the HBC during the 115th Congress, there are already three members who have joined the Caucus in 2019: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), and freshman David Trone (D-Maryland).
Of the current 67, there are currently 11 original HBC members from its first two years: Reps. John Shimkus (R-Illinois); Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas); Marcy Kaptur (D-OH); Peter King (R-New York); Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts); Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey); Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey); Nancy Pelosi (D-California); Bobby Rush (D-Illinois); Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey); and Fred Upton (R-Michigan). Two members of those early days are currently in the SBFC: Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey); and Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan). Three Senators who were previously members of the HBC have not yet joined the SBFC: Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland); Roy Blunt (R-Missouri); and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
California has the highest membership with 15 HBC members currently. Michigan, Ohio, and Texas each have five.
As one of its advocacy goals, the Joint Baltic American National Committee, Inc. (JBANC) has been reaching out to the new members in both House and Senate – just over 100 in all – to urge them to join their respective Baltic Caucus, with special attention to the 13 members who have taken over this year for a former HBC member. Also, it is important to look at those members of Congress who have recently co-sponsored legislation, like the 2018 Baltic centennial resolutions, which had 43 supporters in the House (30 of those were HBC members at the time), and 18 co-sponsors in the Senate (four being with the SBFC).
We should keep in mind the message of the “Dear Colleague” letter issued recently by Senators Durbin and Grassley: “The Baltics have never been more relevant to U.S. foreign policy. As NATO frontline states, Baltic security in the face of an aggressive Russia is critical to the integrity of the alliance.” In addition, as the letter states, “…the knowledge and experience of our Baltic allies will continue to be invaluable on many of the timely issues of the day.”
Although Baltic-American advocacy has been very effective over the years, we shouldn’t rest on any of our laurels. We can improve not just the numbers in the two Caucuses, but strengthen the connections between the United States and Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and our communities here.
Members join caucuses because they have an interest – whether it’s because of a constituent, heritage, interest in the region, or just an opportunity to support the Baltics. Compared to other caucuses in Congress, the House Baltic Caucus with 67 members is certainly higher in numbers than just about every other “country” caucus. We can compare our efforts to that of the Armenian community and the Armenian Caucus, which had reached 108 members in the U.S. House of Representatives as of February 2019. Armenians are a very active community in the United States, and their advocacy is prolific. We should strive to do more, as the Armenians have.
We have to remember that the mission, work, and dedication of the Caucus is determined not only by the membership but by the activeness of its related community or communities. The Baltic-American communities can certainly consider the Baltic Caucuses as valuable resources and points of contact with the U.S. legislative body. What we put into it, we get out of it. Our constituency and contacts, calls, and visits with Members of Congres are important. One person can make a difference. That is the power of American democracy.
Resources: House Baltic Caucus website: https://housebalticcaucus.webs.com/ JBANC Baltic Caucus webpage: https://www.jbanc.org/house-baltic-caucus House Baltic Caucus on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Baltic_Caucus