Wag the Dogs

When the House of Representatives passed the $1.2 trillion stimulus package last Thursday, Radio Free Europe reported the vote fell “straight down party lines.” As with everything the mainstream media report, this is false. House Republicans were joined by 11 Democrats, ten of whom belong to the Blue Dog Coalition, the party’s self-described fiscal conservatives. The Blue Dogs’ stock has soared in recent years, as this Congress greets 51 Blue Dog Democrats, up from 46 in the 110th. The coalition has added 15 new members since 2006. However, these dogs may have been best described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Silver Blaze,” as Inspector Gregory asks Sherlock  Holmes:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Like the dog that didn’t bark, when faced with a budget-busting bill that violated their core financial principles, doubled the budget deficit, and was described by the New York Times as the “largest increase in federal aid since” World War II, all but the most conservative — and most politically vulnerable — of the Blue Dogs could be counted on to roll over and play dead.

The Blue Dogs Pony Up Your Money

Blue Dog Democrats have cut a figure as budget hawks, demanding “an adherence to pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) budget discipline”: all revenue changes must not add to the deficit. Former Blue Dog whip Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota described their position, warning, “We simply cannot continue to mortgage our nation’s future and pass on trillions in debt to our grandchildren.”

But that’s precisely what most of her caucus voted to do. Facing an astronomical $1.2 trillion deficit without the stimulus, 41 Blue Dogs voted to literally double-down on it by backing a bill that contained such non-emergency measures as $1 billion for Amtrak, $50 billion for the arts, and $400 million for NASA to “put more scientists to work doing climate change research.”

Part of the explanation is the coalition’s adoration of the new president. Barack Obama set the Blue Dogs’ tails a-wagging by saying, “we will have more to say about how we’re going to approach entitlement spending.” Obama’s private assurances that he supported PAYGO led Rep. Jim Cooper to gush, “He is smarter than Bill Clinton and disciplined.” (In non-Democratic circles, this would be known as “damning with faint praise.”)

Love affair or no, the Blue Dogs were hesitant on the stimulus bill. Last Tuesday, 27 Democrats, and 24 members of the Blue Dog Caucus, voted against bringing the stimulus bill to the floor. Within one day, more than a dozen Blue Dogs had changed their minds. The Hill reports the Blue Dogs were in full uproar, until Obama Budget Director Peter Orszag wrote a letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (a far-leftist), arguing this bill constituted an “extraordinary response to an extraordinary process” and the administration would “return to the fiscal responsibility and pay-as-you-go budgeting” as soon as this passed. Honest. It convinced some. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana deemed the letter a “direct signal that President Obama is willing to make the tough decisions necessary to put our country back on a path to fiscal responsibility.”

Had they voted as a body against it, the Coalition could have killed the bill, but they instead voted for the bill after a vague promise for future discipline. This is rather like allowing oneself a five-gallon tub of ice cream on the grounds that one will resume diet and exercise later.

A Few Good Men

The coalition’s most conservative members voted their conscience. Mississippi’s Gene Taylor voted no. Taylor is the only Democrat still in Congress to have voted for all four articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton and is, according to the National Journal, the most conservative Democrat in the House, voting with Republicans 54 percent of the time. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-MN, also voted nay, stating the bill “may in fact make matters worse.” Peterson was one of the seven original Blue Dog Democrats, and he who voted against Clinton’s 1993 budget. He reflects the values of his rural, Bemidji district in opposing abortion and gun control. So frequent were his transgressions against party discipline that Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened to deny him chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee in 2004.

Allen Boyd, who has represented Florida’s second district since 1997, was the only Democrat to co-sponsor a 2005 bill to create private retirement accounts within Social Security.  His overall record is moderate and nuanced, voting with Republicans half the time. Boyd voted down a measure releasing the remaining $350 billion TARP funds requested by Obama before balking — err, barking — at the stimulus package. He instead called for “an innovative business environment and leads to job creation and a stronger economy…I want to have more confidence that each provision is temporary, targeted, timely, and truly stimulative.” Although politically popular at home, he not doing it out of higher political aspirations: the same day as the vote, Boyd announced he will not seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez.

However, other Blue Dogs are less marked by defection. Brad Ellsworth of southwestern Indiana, who opposed the stimulus, votes with his party 87 percent of the time. Current Blue Dog whip Heath Shuler, a North Carolinian with higher aspirations, supports the Pelosi agenda 86 percent of the time.

The group’s self-described “nerd,” Jim Cooper of Tennessee, has an excessively moderate record. Cooper, the man who lost a Senate race to Fred Thompson in 1994, opposed “draconian” Hillarycare in 1993 by proposing his own bipartisan alternative. Her response? “We’ll crush you.” Cooper spoke favorably of the stimulus bill just a few weeks ago, and even in voting no held out hope he could vote for the final bill if it “stays closer to its purpose: helping America recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”

The Four Freshmen

The principled members of the Coalition, all six of them, were joined by four vulnerable freshmen. Frank Kratovil, Congressman from Maryland’s first district, succeeded 18-year Republican Wayne Gilchrest in an election that was contested for eight days. Gilchrest endorsed Kratovil over his conservative challenger, and many Republicans voted for the Democrat. Recognizing the GOP will test whether the powers of incumbency will be sufficient to carry him through a 2010 challenge, Kratovil voted against the bill on the reasonable grounds that it “includes projects to the tune of $200 million to rebuild the National Mall and $50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Although these may be admirable causes, they certainly are not emergencies and should not be lumped in with legitimate efforts to strengthen our economy and get people back to work.”

Walt Minnick represents Idaho’s first district, a conservative area with a lopsided Republican majority where he squeaked by with 51 percent of the vote. The 66-year-old, a former Nixon White House staffer who resigned in protest of the “Saturday Night Massacre,” campaigned as a conservative, not a moderate. He confessed to David Broder, “I sit in the 14th-most Republican district in the country, and the other 13 are all held by Republicans.” As a result, his economic program sounds as if it were written by Andrew Carnegie: “I’m very concerned about bailing out every failing company. Free enterprise only works if you’re free to fail as well as free to succeed.”

Another Democrat succeeding a Republican is Alabama’s Bobby Bright, who replaced Republican Terry Everett, becoming the first Democrat to represent the second district since 1965. Bright recommended “simply focusing on investments in infrastructure and targeted tax relief for individuals and small businesses.” He was rewarded with such skewed reporting as the following, from the Montgomery Advertiser:

Rep. Bobby Bright was one of only a handful of Democrats who voted against a massive economic stimulus package Wednesday that would provide money to build roads and schools and more than $1 billion for Medicaid health services for the poor in Alabama.

The bill, which the House approved 244-188, contains billions for food stamps and school construction to bolster Alabama’s sagging budget. The legislation also includes about $2.2 billion in tax credits of $500 for Alabama individuals and $1,000 for families in 2009 and 2010…

Montgomery Public Schools would receive an additional $33.3 million in federal funds for Title 1 programs, school construction and other educational programs in 2009 and 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Bright’s fellow Alabama freshman, Parker Griffith, held onto a seat that has not been occupied by a Republican since Reconstruction. He narrowly turned back Republican Wayne Parker. Griffith voted against expanding SCHIP and against taxpayer-funded health care for illegal immigrants — for which he has likewise been criticized by the local media.

A Donkey in the Dog House

The one non-Blue Dog Democrat to vote against the stimulus bill is Rep. Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania’s 11th district. Hardly a conservative, Kanjorski sports a 21 percent American Conservative Union lifetime voting record. After barely beating Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta 52-48 in his heavily Democratic district, he, too, turned up the laissez-faire rhetoric: “People have to get out of the bailout mentality and that government is the responsible party for everything, In reality, we are individually responsible. We have a cleansing system and it’s harsh…It’s the price you pay to have unfettered opportunity to have success.” Yet he has voted against earmark reform, a secret ballot for union elections, missile defense, and the Surge, but in favor of a six-month withdrawal from Iraq. And like Jim Cooper, he held out hope of voting for the final bill. “I hope that the Senate will make necessary changes to the bill so that I can support it in its final version and help rebuild our economy…I look forward to working with [Obama] and Congress to improve the current bill.”

Conservatism Lite

The media often describe Blue Dogs as “conservative,” and they are — for Democrats. However, hopes this caucus would buck its San Francisco leadership have proven illusory. Some believed Blue Dogs would advance President Bush’s agenda in his second term. Their performance proved a disappointment. Bob Novak noted last May, “in the House starting in January 2007, they [Blue Dogs] have voted the Democratic line — with no exceptions — more than 80 percent of the time.”

A common refrain in their opposition to this bill is not its massive Keynesian intervention in the economy but its method of financing and the amount of pork incorporated. Many object there is not enough spending for unemployment insurance, federal make-work programs, food stamps, and space travel. Collin Peterson said, “Had this stimulus bill been limited only to programs directly resulting in job creation and infrastructure projects, and for unemployment compensation and food stamps, I might have felt comfortable voting for it.” Rep. Mike Ross, D-AR, gave a Blue Dog’s idea of a good stimulus package. Many Americans, Ross said, have “got a car that’s broken, they’ve got a washing machine that doesn’t work. They get a $300 check in the mail — they’re going to get these things fixed. That’s how you stimulate the economy.” There’s yet another reason Blue Dogs are not capital-C Conservatives: Conservatives learn from experience.

As Senate Democrats amend the bill to make it more likely to attract bipartisan support, and as Republicans rebuff Harry Reid’s wooing, Blue Dogs have rendered a valuable service. Their objections coupled with those of Republicans, undoubtedly helped strip the most onerous elements (e.g., contraception, an entirely different kind of stimulation) out of the stimulus bill. They also set down an important political marker. At a time when only 42 percent of the American people support the stimulus bill and most have major reservations, 100 percent of Republicans thus far have shown they oppose the bill. On the other hand, only 20 percent of the country’s most conservative Democrats can be counted on to oppose a pork-laden, make-work bill, which will not have an appreciable effect on the economy for at least 16 months, even when it violates their most cherished principles. This is not what Republican-leaning districts elected Blue Dog Democrats to do, but it may signal a way out of the political wilderness for the GOP.

This article originally appeared on Tuesday, February 3, 2009, on FrontPage Magazine.