Blue Dogs Bark
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.