Two Minnesota congressmen who are about as far apart politically as they can get have teamed up to create the Somalia Caucus in the U.S. House.
Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat, and 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican, announced the creation of the new caucus in a joint statement Tuesday.
They said the caucus will advocate for peace and stability in the African country "as it emerges from decades of violent conflict and humanitarian crises."
Ellison and Emmer say the Somalia caucus will help support efforts to defeat the terrorist group Al-Shabaab and prevent recruitment of new Al-Shabaab members from within the U.S.; help establish good government practices in the country; and help modernize Somalia's economy.
Ellison's district, which is primarily the city of Minneapolis, is the most liberal of Minnesota's eight districts. Emmer's 6th District covers parts of the metro area's suburbs and reaches north into St. Cloud. It's considered the most conservative in the state, the Star Tribune notes.
But the two say they have a common interest in representing large Somali populations in their districts. Minnesota is home to tens of thousands of Somali immigrants.
“For us and the constituents we represent, Somalia is not a far off foreign policy issue, it’s a matter of domestic policy and national security," they said in the statement. "We are committed to advocating on behalf of all of our constituents while ensuring that Somalia has the tools it needs to create strong democratic institutions that provide safety and economic opportunity to its people.”
What's a caucus? What do they do?
The creation of a congressional caucus is actually not all that unusual. As a matter of fact, there are nearly 400 registered caucuses in the House that are set up to advocate on various issues – some serious, some not so much.
Here's a list of all the registered Congressional caucuses in the 113th Congress, the two-year session which just ended in January.
If you take a look you'll see powerful groups like the Congressional Black Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, as well as other lower-profile groups such as the Soccer Caucus, the Bourbon Caucus and the Cut Flower Caucus.
The National Journal notes the number of congressional caucuses has exploded in the past few decades. But the groups don't really have any authority: they can't hold hearings and they don't have the authority to act on legislation.
But the caucuses do serve an important function as informal vehicles for members of Congress to discuss various issues. Out of those discussions, actual legislation often emerges, according to the Journal.
Like the new Somalia caucus, many of the groups are focused on U.S. relations with specific countries, including Vietnam, Korea, Israel and Spain.
Another large number of caucuses are dedicated to a particular disease or medical issue, including Parkinson's, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, brain injury, and diabetes, the Journal notes.