Blue Dogs Bark
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.