- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Although not much can garner bipartisan support on Capitol Hill these days, Legos and Super-Soakers apparently can bridge the aisle.

The new congressional Toy Caucus is just one example of a unique cause for which members of Congress band together in their free time. Almost 400 caucuses — groups of lawmakers united by common interests — have been formed to promote awareness on topics including home brewing, zoos, peanuts — and now toys.

The Toy Caucus was formed to raise the profiles of issues facing the U.S. toy industry, a statement from the caucus said. Led by Rep. Ron Kind, Wisconsin Democrat, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, the 11 members of the caucus have either toy companies in their districts or an interest in promoting the industry, a spokesman for Mr. Kind said.

“Members of the Toy Caucus recognize the toy industry’s significant impact on the U.S. economy and the critical role of play in the lives of children,” Mr. Kind said in the founding statement. “We look forward to working with representatives of the industry to advance discussions on topics ranging from toy safety and the value of play to the growth of small toy businesses.”

There is a policy angle as well. Caucus members say they want to highlight concerns by American toymakers about the threat of excessive federal regulation and damaging trade restrictions and barriers.

Ordnance disposal expertise

Not all caucuses are related to industries or products.

Rep. Eric A. “Rick” Crawford, Arkansas Republican, is a former disarmament technician in the Army and founded the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Caucus in 2011 to lend support to the small community of military bomb defusers among the services.

“I just felt like they needed to have a voice up here,” Mr. Crawford said. “Very few people know about who they are, what they do and their mission. In this environment, [roadside bombs] are the weapons of choice of our enemies.”

The 25-member caucus tends to attract representatives who either have military experience or have explosive ordnance disposal units in their home districts. At two major events a year, units conduct demonstrations on Capitol Hill to “give people a firsthand look at what goes on in the EOD field,” Mr. Crawford said. New bomb-defusing robots and the clunky suits specialists wear are big draws, he said.

Mr. Crawford said it is important to maintain funding for ordnance disposal technicians who continue to be involved with security interests in countries where combat activities are either over or winding down.

“We’re basically bringing the war on terrorism back here to our shores,” he said. He noted that a National Guard explosive ordnance disposal unit was one of the first responders at the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

“They played critical role in helping to mitigate that incident,” Mr. Crawford said. “They’re going to be called on to do even more as we see potential for things like that to escalate.”

He also sees a use for personnel along the U.S.-Mexico border as drug cartels adopt tactics used by international terrorists, including roadside bombs such as those that targeted U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Saluting Olympic heroes

Another caucus on the Hill raises awareness about a different kind of American hero. The Olympic and Paralympic Caucus was founded in February 2010 to recognize athletes who represent the U.S. on the world athletic stage. The group’s 27 members aim to promote diversity in athletes, fair competition and the benefits of sports participation for those with disabilities, according to the group’s website.

“We’re very proud of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes,” said Rep. James R. Langevin, Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the caucus. He is in a wheelchair as a result of an accident when he was a teenager. “As members of Congress, we want to do everything we can to support their efforts.”

The caucus organizes three or four events a year, including a ceremony on Capitol Hill to recognize the successes of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The caucus plans to introduce a resolution to recognize the athletes who participate in the Winter Games at Sochi, Russia, next year.

It’s not only professional athletes who have supporters on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, North Carolina Democrat, is co-chairman of the Youth Sports Caucus, which focuses on keeping the fun in child sports through better coaching, reducing inappropriate parental intervention and improving safety, especially on head injuries and concussions. Mr. McIntyre started the caucus in 2005 after the release of a major study that found that sports are an integral way to teach fitness, leadership and sportsmanship, but about 70 percent of American children quit organized activities by age 13 because they aren’t fun anymore.

“Youth sports have the capacity to build character and to teach children values like sportsmanship, civility, respect, loyalty, teamwork and, as I often say, how to deal with the victories and the disappointments in life,” Mr. McIntyre said. “Studies have shown that students involved in recreational and athletic activities make better grades, they get in less trouble, and they’re less likely to be obese.”

It’s not all fun and games, though. The caucus commissioned a Government Accountability Office report looking at youth sports, released last year, that found physical education programs are suffering from a pronounced lack of resources.

“Some schools are focusing so heavily on academics that a lot of physical education programs are cut due to budgetary restraints, and sports and [recreational] programs are being cut back,” he said. “It’s having ramifications in terms of overall health, obesity, nutritional issues and a healthier lifestyle.”

Many of the caucus’ events on Capitol Hill are interactive — Mr. McIntyre even tried out a miniature tennis court. The caucus has partnered with several sporting organizations, including the PGA, Pop Warner football and tennis and soccer associations to promote youth involvement in sports.

Mr. McIntyre, who stays active and recently received his black belt in taekwondo, said adults everywhere must work to make sports fun for children so they can learn the important lessons tied to athletics.

“All of us have a responsibility as parents, as guardians, as citizens involved in our community who are concerned about the futures of our children and youths having the opportunity to develop in a myriad of ways: intellectually, emotionally, morally and physically,” he said. “Youth sports can help in all of those areas.”

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