Three years ago, Baron Hill, a lawmaker from Indiana and a leader of the Blue Dog caucus of conservative House Democrats, went out on a limb. He appeared in Michael Moore’s movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, to talk about bank pressure to vote for the bailouts. He made a tough vote, months later, to support extending health coverage to 31 million of his fellow Americans by supporting the Affordable Care Act. He was bullied by right-wing hecklers, and pummeled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in deceptive attack ads sponsored by corporate lobbyists. Some of the fronts airing ads against him, like the US Chamber of Commerce, turned out to be financed by the same insurance companies Hill moved to regulate with his ‘aye’ vote on healthcare reform.
K Street’s assault on Hill was part of an orchestrated effort to take out as many Democrats as possible and replace them with reactionary Tea Partiers. Todd Young, a far-right former Heritage Foundation staffer, defeated Hill with the help of a wave of corporate-funded attack ads. And Hill’s Blue Dog caucus was the biggest casualty in the last election.
The stinging electoral defeat—only 23 of 54 Blue Dog members were reelected—taught them one thing: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Earlier this year, a pack of retired Blue Dog lawmakers now working as K Street lobbyists, led in part by Hill, formed an organization called “Center Forward.” The group is the latest manifestation of a think tank created in 2010, the “Blue Dog Research Forum,” purportedly designed to “find commonsense solutions to America’s greatest challenges.”
As the Washington Post’s Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam reported this week, Center Forward is pouring nearly $4 million this cycle into broadcast media to help elect conservative House Democrats, as well as three right-wing House Republicans. Some of the ads are posted on this YouTube channel.
GOP blogs have complained that Center Forward is some type of partisan “Super PAC.” But Super PACs are largely disclosed. Center Forward is actually organized as a 501(c)(4) issue advocacy group, meaning the group can behave like a political committee without revealing its donors.
Rather than being an independent think tank, as the Center’s website implies, tax forms reviewed by The Nation reveal that the organization is closely tied to a variety of corporate lobbying firms now occupied by ex–Blue Dog members of Congress.
The Center is registered to 325 7th Street NW, Suite 400, a Washington, DC, address shared with a lobbying business called the C2 Group. The C2 Group, which represents Comcast, AXA Financial, PepsiCo, the US Chamber of Commerce and YUM! Brands, among others, specializes in peddling influence to conservative Democrats. The website sells the firm’s lobbying expertise and its “close working relationship with the Blue Dog Coalition.”
The tax forms show that C2 Group partner Jeff Murray is the treasurer and custodian of records for Center Forward. Murray is the former chief of staff to Bud Cramer, a Blue Dog leader in Congress before he became a lobbyist with Wexler & Walker, another DC influence-peddling company.
Though Cori Smith, the executive director of Center Forward, declined to respond to The Nation’s request for comments, it appears that her group is attempting to scrub its ties to K Street. Earlier this year, the Center’s website prominently featured the following board members: Bud Cramer, John Tanner, Baron Hill, Vickie Walling and Libby Greer on its “About Us” page. Now, that portion of the site simply lists a vague statement from Cramer.
The omission might relate to the fact that every single board member is a lobbyist. Tanner, a former Democratic lawmaker from Tennessee, works for Prime Policy Group, a major lobby group led by consummate GOP insider Charlie Black; Hill, after losing his seat in 2010, is now at APCO, a global lobbying powerhouse; Walling is a lobbyist at Tanner’s firm; and Greer is a lobbyist for Cauthen, Forbes & Williams.
While the Center blames the “far left” for the loss of pragmatic politics in Congress, it’s worth noting that lobbyists manipulated the same 501(c) section of the tax code as Center Forward in order to sink Blue Dogs and elect radical right Tea Partiers.
The US Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying association for Fortune 500 companies, ran nearly $400,000 in corporate-funded ads against Hill, contributing to his defeat. The Chamber used its 501c group, so there was no disclosure on the source of the money for those ads.
Rather than battling the Chamber, Hill seems to be adopting their practices and even working for their consultants. His new place of employment, APCO, helped manage both the health insurers’ and the Chamber’s lobbying campaign in 2010, the year Hill was defeated.
Hill’s Center Forward launched with a partnership with Purple Strategies and the American Action Forum. Purple Strategies, as I’ve noted, manages GOP ad-buys against Congressional Democrats. The American Action Forum is yet another corporate-funded 501(c)(4) that acts as a front to funnel corporate money into undisclosed attack ads in support of pro-big business Republicans.
In Congress, the Blue Dogs worked with lobbyists to obstruct and water down progressive reforms. But they ultimately voted for many of these legislative items. Their piecemeal subservience to corporate America wasn’t enough—they had to be replaced by Republicans who would toe the K Street line without objection. In defeat, the Blue Dogs are still portraying themselves as middle-of-the-road centrists. In practice, the few differences they had with right-wing business interests have now faded away.
The new bipartisan consensus that Center Forward is trying to promote is simple. Don’t fight corporate interests. Work for them.