Politics & Policy

Blue Dogs’ Moment of Truth

Some Democrats claim they're fiscally conservative but don't vote that way.

Barely 100 days in, this session of Congress has already seen a number of consequential votes.

Some involve major changes in bankruptcy and labor law. For example, one would give bankruptcy judges unilateral authority to rewrite the terms of mortgage contracts, including the amount of principal and the interest rate. Another would give a new lease on life to the oft-discredited labor theory of “comparable worth”; the Paycheck Fairness Act would require employers to justify all pay disparities between their male and female workers.

But the real action has been on the spending front. As Bloomberg News reported, “In this crisis, the U.S. government and the Fed alone have spent, lent or guaranteed $12.8 trillion to try to prop up the banking industry and overall economy to stem the longest recession since the 1930s.” The House has approved legislation to release an additional $350 billion for the Troubled Asset Relief Program; borrow $787 billion to “stimulate” the economy; borrow another $410 billion to expand domestic spending programs; expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by tens of billons of dollars; and triple the level of government funding for volunteerism (even as the president proposed restricting deductions for private charitable giving).

Oh, and let’s not forget that $3.5 trillion budget blueprint for next year. It increases spending, raises taxes, and incurs debt at a rate that even the most jaded Washington insiders would have thought impossible just a few months ago.

Where will it end? A top priority will be to refocus Congress on balancing the budget and ridding taxpayers of the burden the debt places on them. The prospects for these goals will depend largely on the Blue Dogs, a coalition of 51 House Democrats.

According to the Blue Dogs’ website, they have “been particularly active on fiscal issues, relentlessly pursuing a balanced budget and then protecting that achievement from politically popular ‘raids’ on the budget.” But just how “relentlessly” have they pursued a balanced budget during this year’s spending blitzkrieg?

To answer that question, I reviewed nine recent House votes related to the following issues: the release of the second half of the TARP funds, the expansion of SCHIP, the economic-stimulus package, the omnibus spending bill, the expansion of government funding for volunteer activities, and the FY2010 budget.

To determine whether each Blue Dog had voted in a fiscally conservative manner, I looked at whether they voted against Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), the poster child for the views and policy instincts of today’s House Left. Frank missed the vote on the omnibus appropriations bill, so on that vote, lefty representative Barbara Lee (D., Calif.) took his place.

The extent to which members of the Blue Dog Coalition agree with Frank and Lee is nothing short of astounding. Eleven sided with them 100 percent of the time. Ten others stood with them all but once, eleven more all but twice. Bottom line: Two of every three of these self-proclaimed fiscal hawks voted pretty much in lock-step with the biggest spenders on the Left.

Frank-Lee’s 100 percent clones include Reps. Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Bart Gordon (Tenn.), Dennis Moore (Kan.), Patrick Murphy (Penn.), and Earl Pomeroy (N. Dak.). Those who strayed from the Frank-Lee axis only once include Reps. Jason Altmire (Penn.), Melissa Bean (Ill.), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.), Mike Ross (Ark.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S. Dak.), and John Tanner (Tenn.). Reps. Jim Costa (Calif.), Gabriella Giffords (Ariz.), Baron Hill (Ind.), and Charles Melancon (La.), were among those who voted the big-government line all but twice.

Some of the most outspoken members of the Blue Dog Coalition also scored points with the big spenders, voting with Frank and Lee six out of nine times. They include Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Dan Boren (Okla.), Allen Boyd (Fla.), Jim Cooper (Tenn.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), and Jim Matheson (Utah).

Only six Blue Dogs (four of them freshmen and all representing districts that John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election) voted against this spending more than half the time. They are Bobby Bright (Ala.), Parker Griffith (Ala.), Frank Kratovil (Md.), Walt Minnick (Idaho), Colin Peterson (Minn.), and Gene Taylor (Miss.).

To be sure, the Blue Dogs include a disproportionate number of House Democratic dissenters. The two House Democrats who opposed the SCHIP expansion, for example, were Blue Dogs (Bright, and Jim Marshall of Georgia). Blue Dog Marion Berry of Arkansas was the sole Democratic dissenter on the bill to triple the federal government’s role in subsidizing volunteerism. And all but one of the eleven Democrats who opposed the economic-stimulus bill hail from the Blue Dog Coalition.

But most of the time, the large majority of Blue Dogs have been enablers of the Big Government agenda. Ultimately, the extent of their alliance with House uber-liberals reflects the Democratic leadership’s most remarkable and overlooked accomplishment: the use of a form of legislative triage. On the big issues, the Democrats quietly condone the loss of an “acceptable” number — but only an acceptable number — of Blue Dog votes. For example, Tennessee representative Jim Cooper recently said the White House had encouraged him to work against the stimulus bill. He claimed the encouragement came because the White House itself didn’t like the bill, but changed his tune when the administration objected. The incident fits the Democrats’ modus operandi of letting Blue Dogs demonstrate their fiscal austerity — so long as the votes don’t affect the ultimate outcome.

Is there a limit to how often the Blue Dogs will trade their bib overalls for the trendy attire of their liberal House colleagues? We already have seen them blanch at the prospect of cap-and-trade legislation that would wreck havoc on the heavy concentration of manufacturing and agricultural jobs in their districts. The same trepidation may soon become apparent with respect to universal-health-care legislation.

As with any addiction, however, the first step to overcoming the obsession with bigger and bigger government is the recognition that, yes, there is a problem. If their votes are any indication, our Blue Dog friends are not there yet.

– Michael G. Franc is vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

Michael G. Franc — Mr. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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