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What is the caucus?

Halfway through his commentary on a grand jury's searing report on Pennsylvania's legislature, Senior Commonwealth Court Judge Barry Feudale repeated a question that exasperated him.

Halfway through his commentary on a grand jury's searing report on Pennsylvania's legislature, Senior Commonwealth Court Judge Barry Feudale repeated a question that exasperated him.

"Who the hell is the caucus," the judge wrote.

The caucuses are the four partisan political machines that run the legislature. They don't easily give up facts about themselves; one of them even asked the judge to quash subpoenas during the Bonusgate legislative corruption probe.

The Senate and House each have a Democratic and a Republican caucus, organizations headed by their party leaders, staffed mainly by the party faithful, and funded by taxpayers.

According to the grand jury report, released Monday, the caucuses are also inefficient and expensive relics, systems that serve as patronage mills and explain why the legislature has four computer-service departments, three print shops, and two House offices to assist favored constituents with renewing vehicle registrations.

And all running under hard-to-find budgets, according to the report.

"These entities exist in the shadows of the law," the report says. "The taxpayers of Pennsylvania elect individual members to public office, not an amorphous creature called a 'caucus' that consumes resources, is answerable to a select few, and delivers no tangible benefit."

The grand jury, sitting in Harrisburg, is the same one that has returned indictments against 25 people, including top legislators in both parties, since the Bonusgate scandal broke. Ending the caucus system was one recommendation in its sweeping but unusual call for changes.

The statehouse has operated under a strong caucus system for more than a century, as has Congress and at least a third of the state legislatures, including most of Pennsylvania's neighbors. In Trenton, caucus staffs are smaller than in Pennsylvania and are paid by the state.

In many states, the legislative caucuses share routine services. Not in Harrisburg.

"In Pennsylvania, it seems that everything is divided into caucus rule," Rutgers University political scientist Alan Rosenthal said. "It's almost as if in Pennsylvania there are four legislatures."

Rosenthal is the scholar who testified before the grand jury that Pennsylvania seemed stuck in a "time warp," ignoring the improvements and standards that other states have adopted.

In some cases, those changes have led to smaller statehouse operations.

But with 2,918 permanent employees, the commonwealth had more legislative staffers than any other state last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That number, which includes some nonpartisan staffers, is more than twice as many as in 1979. Pennsylvania also has the most full-time legislators, 253.

At their base, caucuses maintain party voting blocs - forming policy priorities, then counting noses and twisting arms, observers say. In some states, lawmakers will gather with caucus members before and after every floor debate or vote.

But defining their operations can be difficult.

Each caucus in Harrisburg maintains leadership offices and staffs within them. Each runs its own website, which mirrors some of what is on the official legislature websites but with party spin.

Exactly how much the partisan system costs taxpayers is unclear. The annual cost to run the legislature, spread across many budget items, is about $300 million, state officials say. But no one has measured how that figure would change without the caucuses.

"The legislature holds hearings on the budget proposal for every other agency in state government, and nobody holds hearings for the budget of the state legislature," said Tim Potts, a former House Democratic caucus spokesman who runs Democracy Rising PA, a government reform group.

In its attack on the caucuses, the grand jury homed in on what it contended were bloated staffs and patronage hires. It quoted former ranking - but unnamed - officers of the House Democratic caucus who said most of its 911 employees were unnecessary.

"You could probably operate on one-quarter to one-third of the staff if properly organized," the caucus' former staffing director testified, according to the report.

In another example, the report said the separate print shops for House Republicans and Democrats employed dozens of people, bought identical equipment, and cost taxpayers about $6 million a year.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) noted that most of the grand jury report examples criticized House caucuses. He also pointed out that neighboring states use caucuses.

"There's always room for improvement, but I don't think the idea of having caucuses in general assemblies is a fundamental problem in American democracies," Pileggi said in an interview.

Spokesmen for House Majority Leader Todd A. Eachus (D., Luzerne) and House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) didn't return calls and e-mails seeking comment on the issue.

California once claimed as many legislative workers as Pennsylvania. Outraged by reports of staffers paid to work on partisan campaigns, voters in 1990 passed Proposition 140, which instituted term limits and required the legislature to cut its staff by a third.

In recent years, the caucus system has become more pronounced as legislatures have turned sharply more partisan, experts say. At the same time, county political machines have withered, and legislative campaigns have become more anchored in the capitals.

"What's generally happened in most states is politics has become more competitive, more partisan," Rosenthal said, "and campaigns and governing have become more of a fused process rather than separate processes."

Rosenthal said he didn't agree with all of the grand jury recommendations, or with ending the caucus system. Like the judge, Feudale, he said the legislature should reform itself.

"They're the custodians," he said, "and they're the closest to it and they know better than I know and better than you know how it operates."

One state enduring similar scrutiny of its caucus system is Wisconsin, where top legislators have been convicted of using their caucuses for campaign work.

Most citizens didn't understand the role and influence of caucuses in their state government when the scandal broke, and many probably still don't, according to Kathy Cramer Walsh, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who studies public perception of government.

"Our political leaders weren't clear in communicating what it was," she said. "I think a lot of the confusion was intentional."