The Blue Dog Democrats are colorfully named, but they're dead serious about their mission of attacking the record $9.4 trillion national debt. Many of the 49 House lawmakers in the coalition post signs outside their offices showing how much every man, woman, and child in America (population, 304 million) would have to pay to drain the sea of red ink: $31,000 apiece. The group's top dog, Rep. Allen Boyd, a 63-year-old cattle farmer from Florida's panhandle, thinks Americans have been lulled into believing that any new program or tax cut will fly. "And if there's a gap, we just go overseas and borrow the money," he says. "We go to the piggy bank in the People's Republic of China until it goes empty or until they cut it off."
The right-of-center Blue Dogs—they call themselves "fiscal police"—got going after the 1994 Republican revolution ousted Democrats from power. At first, the coalition was small, a minority within a minority toiling in obscurity and watching their numbers shrink when some Blues bolted to join the GOP. Call it pragmatism, political survival, or worse, but many members, then and now, are from districts rife with Republicans.
Since the Democrats recaptured the House in the 2006 elections, the group has amassed a record membership. The '06 contests saw 11 freshman lawmakers who as candidates had been backed by the Blue Dogs—they're called "Pups" now—win seats. This membership boon has given the group new political muscle.
Today, the Blue Dog Democrats claim a fat war chest—their political action committee has raised more than $2 million this cycle—and they're heady from two special-election wins in GOP districts this spring. The victories in Louisiana and Mississippi came after the Blue Dogs endorsed candidates and lavished them with money and advice and, out on the trail, donated their shoe leather and sweat. Already, four challengers seeking House seats in November have garnered Blue Dog endorsements, which come with cash: $5,000 to both candidates and their state party.
Many of the Blues are conservative on social issues, though by Boyd's estimate about half support abortion rights. They take their name from the old "Yellow Dog Democrats" of the South, apocryphally so loyal to the party that they would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot with a "D" after its name. As members explain, the Blue Dog moniker arose because they'd been "choked blue" by liberals in the Democratic tent. "We're part of a movement. We're part of a cause to bring our party, the Democratic Party, back to the middle. We believe that the majority of the American people today are in the middle," says House Democrat Mike Ross of Arkansas, unabashedly "pro-gun, pro-life, against illegal immigration, and against same-sex marriage." Talking about how the Blue Dogs have won seats, Ross says: "We're not defeating Republicans with liberal Democrats. We're defeating them with conservative Democrats like Don Cazayoux in Louisiana and Travis Childers in Mississippi."
Important voice. Like the special-election victors, more Blue Dogs (22 altogether) hail from the South than any other region; others are from the Midwest (11), West (10), and Northeast (six). Most are men: 43 to six. Most are white: 42 to seven. Many are from rural areas. About a dozen are veterans in a group that also touts the importance of national security.
With 49 members, theirs is a coalition too big for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to ignore. In a 435-member House, 218 is a majority, so while she deals with various factions—such as the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Out of Iraq Caucus—she can't afford many Blue defectors with today's 235-to-199 margin. And Pelosi hasn't overlooked them. As speaker, she immediately backed a House rule requiring "pay-as-you-go" spending and taxing, a major achievement for the coalition. Though the rule may be waived, it requires that increases in new mandatory spending and decreases in taxes be paired with commensurate budget cuts or revenue-producing measures.
Still, the "pay-go" measure is unlikely to be passed into law in the near term. And the House rule was sidestepped for both the $152 billion economic stimulus package and last year's alternative-minimum tax fix that cost the government $50 billion in revenue. An ongoing fight centers on whether the new $52 billion GI Bill will be offset.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio has charged that time and again, the Blue Dogs have capitulated to their party leadership's desire for "more wasteful Washington spending," deriding them as "all bark and no bite." The Dogs say the blame sometimes lies in the Senate, as happened when the House voted to pay for the AMT fix, but senators refused.
Thomas E. Mann, an authority on Congress at the Brookings Institution, says while the coalition has been successful in getting Pelosi to pay heed to their agenda, "the reality is with the 60-vote hurdle [to pass most measures] in the Senate, and George W. Bush in the White House wielding the veto, achieving their highest priority, which is taking pay-go seriously, is remote."
The coalition is rare for its rules. There is a cap on the number of voting members (currently at 20 percent of the House Democratic Caucus, but that's expected to be eased in November), and potential members are interviewed and must submit a paper on fiscal responsibility. Lawmakers who make the cut must attend at least 60 percent of the group's Tuesday 5 p.m. policy meetings. It's then that they vote on whether to take a stand on an issue, and members say topics such as guns, gay marriage, and abortion simply aren't on the agenda. Two thirds of members must agree before the group takes a stance. At 8 a.m. the next day, they pay for a breakfast at a Hill eatery to listen to officials from industries such as defense, energy, and telecom. "There's a long waiting list of people that want to come," Ross says.
The Blue Dog posters featuring the national debt, updated five days a week with Treasury Department numbers, soon will be disappearing from the corridors of the House office buildings. The signs are a casualty of a new policy banning hallway clutter so people can evacuate in an emergency, something which—in light of the looming crisis over how to pay for Medicare and Social Security—the Blue Dogs would argue is just around the corner.