NEIL SHAPIRO

The House of Representatives is a body that produces few stars, but Jim Cooper of Tennessee is a household name inside the Beltway. David Brooks has called him “one of the most thoughtful, cordial and well-prepared members of the House.” He is viewed by the well-funded budget-hawk constituency as one of its most articulate advocates. Among his colleagues he has a reputation as a wonk and an intellectual–he even teaches a class at Vanderbilt University on health policy–and as the philosopher for the caucus of forty-nine conservative House Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. He gives off the slightly martyred air of someone who believes himself to be smarter than the people he works with.

In the past few weeks Cooper has emerged as the dissident-in-chief among House Democrats (a role he’s been rehearsing since 1994, when his refusal to pull his “compromise” healthcare proposal helped kill the Clinton plan). Cooper was one of eleven Democrats–ten of them Blue Dogs–to vote against Obama’s stimulus package. A few days after the vote, Cooper caused a stir when he suggested to a local radio station that Obama’s aides had encouraged him to vote against their bill, a statement he had to walk back the next day.

When I spoke to Cooper the week after the vote, he defended it as counterintuitively pro-Obama, cast against “certain Congressional old habits and bad practices. A lot of our colleagues have not gotten the change message.” He expressed frustration with the speed of the process, as well as the fact that the leadership had forgone the normal committee mark-ups, saying that members were “just told how to vote.”

If that was the case, I asked Cooper, why had he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program little more than a week after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson sent a three-page proposal up to the Hill asking for $700 billion? “We were told,” he said, “and I believed at the time, that the TARP money was a genuine national emergency.”

When you walk into Cooper’s office, you are greeted by a large sign that reads:

The Blue Dog Coalition

Today the U.S. National Debt Is $50,000,000,000,000

Your Share of the National Debt: $170,000

The Blue Dogs were founded in 1995 in the wake of the GOP takeover of the House, but they didn’t get much attention until the Democrats took it back in 2006. If you read any of the postelection coverage, it was the freshmen Blue Dogs like Pennsylvania’s Chris Carney and North Carolina’s Heath Shuler who had upset high-profile Republicans who were the MVPs of the cycle and the party’s new voice. Leaders of the House Pack? the Philadelphia Inquirer asked in a headline, Blue Dogs Could Point Way for Democrats.

Their star turn extended through much of the 110th Congress, as caucus members flexed their muscles on their signature issue: fiscal discipline. They pushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to adopt “pay-go” rules, which required all new expenditures (except, notably, those for the war) to be offset by tax increases or corresponding spending cuts. Their outsize influence frustrated progressive activists who viewed their support for the Iraq occupation and expanded government surveillance powers and their opposition to “net neutrality” as obstacles to fulfilling the progressive promise of the new Congress. The website Open Left labeled the group “Bush Dogs” and began documenting the ways they enabled right-wing legislation.

“Remember, you don’t get to choose your politics,” Cooper told me when I visited his office one morning in December. “The voters choose you. All Blue Dogs and our predecessors were trying to do is reach people who don’t read The Nation.… Why have people been begging to be Blue Dogs? Because it’s a brand of Democrats people in the heartland can trust. It partly means fiscal conservatism and it partly means we’re not going to rubber-stamp the rest of the [party] agenda.”

In the 110th Congress, the Blue Dogs’ clout made a kind of sense. The caucus was larger than the Democrats’ margin, which meant they were the proverbial swing voter–and fawned over as a result. But in the 111th Congress, the Democrats’ margin is big enough to pass legislation without a single Republican or Blue Dog vote. On top of that, the severity of the economic crisis has moved the center of debate decidedly away from the Blue Dogs’ cardinal issue of fiscal austerity. There’s a broad consensus among economists that we need to run large short-term deficits to avoid levels of unemployment and misery we haven’t seen in seventy years. So you’d think the Blue Dogs would have as central a role in today’s debate as pacifists did in the months after 9/11.

But not so. The Blue Dogs continue to wield influence. Before the stimulus could be brought to the floor, the House had to approve emergency orders to expedite the process. The Blue Dogs balked and threatened to rebel until the White House sent a letter to several House committee chairs reaffirming its commitment to return to pay-go budgeting after the stimulus is passed. In the end, half the caucus voted against the leadership anyway. The week after the stimulus passed the House, Blue Dog co-chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin sent an open letter to Pelosi and House majority leader Steny Hoyer expressing the caucus’s support for efforts by Senate Republicans and conservative Democrats to cut approximately $100 billion from the package–including money for things like school construction, rural broadband and early childhood programs. “We believe that’s a highly worthwhile goal,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, the media remain obsessed. As Talking Points Memo’s Elana Schor recently noted, press mentions of the Blue Dogs outnumbered mentions of the Progressive Caucus by nearly ten to one between mid-October and mid-January. This despite the Progressive Caucus being larger and having far more members in the leadership.

I’ve spent the past few months trying to sort out why the Blue Dogs get so much attention. The best I can tell, there are two main reasons. One has to do with the organizational mechanics of the Blue Dog caucus, which is more unified and cohesive than any other in the House. The other has to do with the ongoing Beltway love affair with “fiscal conservatism.”

The first-ever House caucus was in many ways the opposite of today’s Blue Dogs. Founded in 1959, the liberal Democratic Study Group was created by Congressional liberals who wanted to organize their opposition to the conservative Southerners who chaired the most important committees and routinely foiled liberal legislation, particularly on civil rights and labor. Beginning in the ’70s, as the South migrated toward the GOP, Southern Democrats found themselves further from the mainstream of the party and the levers of power, and responded with a caucus of their own, the “boll weevils.” After Democrats made large gains in the 1982 midterms, the boll weevils’ influence was greatly reduced and the group eventually petered out, replaced in 1995 by the House Blue Dog caucus.

The Blue Dogs’ website explains their name thus: “Taken from the South’s longtime description of a party loyalist as one who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot as a Democrat, the ‘Blue Dog’ moniker was taken by members of The Coalition because their moderate-to-conservative views had been ‘choked blue’ by their party in the years leading up to the 1994 election.”

But like a lot of aspects of the Blue Dog mythology, this doesn’t hold up. If Blue Dogs felt choked blue by fellow Democrats’ lavish spending, the timing of their founding doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Clinton had just pushed through a budget that reduced the deficit by 12 percent and put it on a glide path to surplus. It seems just as likely that Democrats from conservative districts who survived the bloodbath of 1994 understood that their future electoral success depended on distancing themselves from the Democratic Party.

For most of the Clinton and early Bush years, the Blue Dogs weren’t much of a factor. But after the 2006 midterms, the caucus grew dramatically from thirty-seven members to forty-seven, and the Blue Dog PAC became a financial juggernaut, raising more than $2.6 million (lots of it from corporate PACs) for the 2008 cycle.

While the Progressive Caucus is larger and more integrated into the House leadership, the Blue Dogs are arguably more effective. This is partly because of the drawbacks of size: the bigger you are, the harder it is to achieve consensus, and as a result Progressive Caucus members rarely take positions en masse. Blue Dogs, on the other hand, have limited their membership to 25 percent of the House Democratic caucus and take official positions on bills only if they have the support of two-thirds of their members. (In the 110th Congress, that was only six bills, including a corporate average fuel economy standards [CAFE] bill, the war funding accountability bill and the bipartisan FISA compromise.)

This allows the Blue Dogs to operate more like a junior parliamentary coalition partner than the loose federation that is the Progressive Caucus. “They’re organized,” a progressive Representative’s chief of staff told me. “When you’re dealing with the Blue Dogs, you know you’re dealing with an entity that has a very narrow focus–but that they have a structure that says they can deliver votes, and they know where all their members are going to be.” This meant that in the 110th Congress, they could “control outcomes of votes.”

Also, she added, the Blue Dogs have more latitude to take on the House leadership because they stand almost entirely outside it. Indeed, part of what makes Blue Dog membership so appealing to new members (aside from branding themselves as “independent” and “moderate” to constituents back home) is that it provides an alternate leadership ladder and support network. The caucus has three co-chairs who serve two-year terms; new leaders cycle through, and relatively junior members like Herseth Sandlin and Shuler can quickly bypass the long seniority slog to a high-profile position.

The caucus is also uncommonly tightknit socially. “I don’t want to sound shmaltzy about this,” Carney told me, “but there is somewhat of a familiar feeling in the Blue Dogs. We have each other’s backs. A large number of the guys I hung out with early on when I first came out on the Hill are my friends and are Dogs as well. It’s a very good, comfortable fit for many of us.” That could be partly because the caucus is more homogeneous than the party as a whole: more male, white and Southern. In the words of one progressive Democratic House member: “It’s a fraternity.”

This “fraternity” is ostensibly built around a single issue: fiscal discipline. It’s a term that is both more and less than it appears.

Everyone understands that Democrats attempting to represent conservative districts have to convince their constituents that despite the D next to their name, they hear them, understand them and share their concerns and worldview. But to do this they’ve chosen to invest a tremendous amount of political capital in something that, well, no one cares about. In a recent national poll of priorities, the deficit/debt came in a distant sixth, after regulating the financial industry, ending the war in Iraq and healthcare reform. This could be because the national debt as a percentage of GDP is well within post-World War II norms. A Democratic Congressional candidate who unsuccessfully challenged a Republican incumbent in a conservative district in the South put it to me this way: “Nobody brings up the deficit. Ever.”

But fiscal conservatism is actually a kind of token. What has empowered Blue Dogs the most, and given them their platform, is the strange reversal in the political valence of the issue of balanced budgets. For much of the past century, a balanced budget was viewed by conservatives as key to controlling inflation and restraining the growth of government. Republicans stood for balanced budgets while Democrats, under the influence of FDR’s success and Keynesian fiscal policy, were more willing to run deficits to stimulate the economy and keep unemployment low.

But starting in the 1980s, things flipped. First, the supply-siders took over the Republican Party, hewing alternately to a belief that massive tax cuts would pay for themselves (they didn’t) or the Machiavellian view that running up massive deficits would “starve the beast” and force later administrations to reduce the size of government radically or face bankruptcy. Meanwhile, neoliberals like Robert Rubin helped persuade Clinton to embrace a balanced budget; the economic growth and surpluses that followed are trotted out as causally connected by nearly all Democrats running for national office.

This inheritance has a special role for Blue Dogs: by calling themselves fiscal conservatives, they get to use the adjective “conservative” and distance themselves from the liberals in their party without arousing the ire of the Democratic coalition’s strongest interest groups. “If you’re a Democrat and say, I’m gonna be against abortion, that’s going to be more dramatic [and difficult] than if you say, I’m for reducing the deficit and balancing the budget,” says Princeton Congressional historian Julian Zelizer. “It’s a little less explosive a way to break with your party leadership.”

Until recently, it also provided Blue Dogs with an argument to use against their Republican opponents by outflanking them on the right. “The idea,” Blue Dog spokeswoman Kristen Hawn told me, “is that this isn’t a Republican issue: they’re the ones that have been irresponsible.”

For all their cohesiveness, positive press and legislative leverage, the Blue Dogs haven’t produced a ton of legislative accomplishments on their signature issue. On the two most massive expenditures of the last Bush years–the Iraq War and the financial bailout–they’ve offered little organized resistance. The offsets on the issues on which they’ve been able to enforce pay-go–like the tax increases to pay for the new GI bill, which the Blue Dogs peg at $63 billion–pale in comparison with the cost of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and the bailout, which have cost more than $1 trillion over the past two years.

Where Blue Dogs have perhaps been most effective is in helping Republicans pass legislation and blocking or diluting progressive legislation. During the months-long debate in 2006 over the Military Commissions Act, which was crafted explicitly to deny the right of habeas corpus to enemy combatants, many Blue Dogs supported the bill (against the directive of the Democratic House leadership), and ultimately twenty-three of thirty-seven voted for it. And it’s not just on national security issues that they’ve played this role. In 2007 Representative Brad Miller proposed legislation that would have amended bankruptcy law to allow judges to alter home mortgage terms, a reform seen by many Democrats as necessary to reduce the number of foreclosures. But according to National Journal‘s online Congress Daily, “bankers…knew exactly whom to go to in order to stop the bill in its tracks: the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats.” Sixteen members of the caucus signed a letter objecting to the legislation, prompting it to be pulled from consideration on the floor. As of this writing, it has yet to pass the House.

Positions like this have convinced many progressives that Blue Dogs are little more than bought-and-paid-for agents of big business. One corporate lobbyist explained the Blue Dogs’ fundraising prowess this way: companies say to themselves, “Blue Dog Democrats are probably going to be more business-friendly, so let’s give them more campaign contributions…. You get elected, you join the Blue Dogs…the money comes flowing.” Individual fundraising is then amplified by contributions from the Blue Dog PAC, much of it from large corporations like UBS ($10,000), Citigroup ($10,000) and Coca-Cola ($10,000).

As much as politicians hate to be accused of being influenced by money, the Blue Dogs haven’t necessarily gone out of their way to disabuse people of this notion: at last year’s Democratic National Convention, the Blue Dog reception (with open bar!) was sponsored and paid for by the telecom industry, which was feeling generous after forty-five of the forty-seven members voted to grant it immunity from civil suits for collusion with unlawful domestic spying.

In late February, Obama will host a “fiscal responsibility summit,” which the Blue Dogs will be attending, an event they demanded as the price for their (reluctant) cooperation with the stimulus bill. On the agenda is “entitlement reform,” the longstanding dream of the Concord Coalition and the Peterson Institute to shrink the social welfare state [see William Greider’s article on page 11]. The full roster has yet to be announced, but it won’t be surprising if Cooper is one of the headliners.

It’s unclear in just what direction the summit will go, but in Washington, the perception of power is indistinguishable from actual power. And if the Blue Dogs don’t have much of the latter, they have the former in spades.

The majority of the Blue Dogs voted for the stimulus package the first time around and will likely do so again when it comes out of conference committee. But their leverage is more rhetorical and political than legislative. By continuing to reinforce the notion that nonmilitary spending is pork, favors to special interests, they lend credence to a deeply entrenched conservative Beltway critique of government–that its biggest problem is that it provides too much to its citizens.

Cooper captured this sentiment perfectly in explaining his opposition to the stimulus. He was skeptical about some of the spending–notably for expanded Medicaid eligibility pools–saying it wouldn’t last just two years but would extend into the future. When I asked why, he said, “Once you hand out Snickers bars, people tend to want more Snickers bars.”

This kind of rhetoric obscures the deeper questions of what government should provide, and which groups get squeezed when the screws are tightened. Under Cooper’s framing it’s all Snickers bars. So when conservative Democrats and so-called moderate Republicans in the Senate, with the support of the Blue Dogs in the House, cut $100 billion from the stimulus package, they left in an estimated $36 billion new home tax credit whose benefits would skew heavily toward the upper middle class and wealthy, while cutting $98 million in school nutrition programs for poor kids.

For the record, they don’t, as a rule, serve Snickers bars in school lunches.