Tom Johnson, even at 59 years of age, doesn't pretend to know-or care-about politics. That's not why he's visiting his new congressman's office this Tuesday morning.
Tom Johnson is here for personal reasons. "I've got arthritis bad," he said. "It fires up my knees and my back. It even ruins my sex life. And it's all because of Agent Orange."
"No, up in Maryland. I worked at Aberdeen, at the proving grounds. That's where it got me-and now I'm a diabetic as well, and I think I got it from Agent Orange too. So I'm going to see if our new congressman can help me. This is probably my last chance."
So, Tom Johnson, since we're both sitting here waiting to talk to someone who can help us, let me ask you: Do you know what a Blue Dog Democrat is?
"Never heard of one," said Tom-grinning as if he were a seventh-grader who hadn't studied for his exam. "What's that?"
"Search me," said the fellow beside him wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. "Blue Dog Democrat? All I care about is if I get an answer from the Social Security crowd. They're so screwed up I thought I'd come over here to get some answers." But he worried that his troubles would only multiply if he gave me his name.
Here-and throughout the waiting room of Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) last week-were no lobbyists, no policy visionaries, no protesters. In the motley crowd of no-names was also not a person who had heard of Blue Dog Democrats. Out of 14 people-right in the office of a self-professed Blue Dog Democrat-no one could describe the phenomenon. Yet by any reasonable standard, Blue Dog Democrats have a singular opportunity now to make their mark on American politics. Yet their showing will have to be more pronounced.
On their very first run out of the congressional kennel, a few Blue Dogs at least let out a little yelp. It may not have counted for a lot just yet-except to keep the analysts, the skeptics, and the cynics all watching. The issue was embryonic stem-cell research-just blurry enough a legislative debate that some were reluctant to make it an early test. A few would say it was possible to go the wrong way on this one, and still come out a conservative.
It was HR 3, a high-priority bill in the Democratic leadership's short list of legislative promises they said they wanted to keep. Its overt purpose was to provide expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Almost as important, though, for many Democrats was the opportunity to offer a blunt reminder to President Bush that the new Congress would not hesitate to challenge him. This was, after all, the only issue on which the president had vetoed any action of the previous Congress. Here was a chance to say to Mr. Bush: We've got you this time.
But even if the Democrats succeed-and it is far from certain they will have enough votes to override a veto-they won't typically be doing it with lock-step loyalty from the Blue Dogs. The point of being a Blue Dog is that while you're a Democrat, you're an independent-minded Democrat. You don't necessarily shrink from parting ways with your party leaders.
If the "Blue Dog" tag sounds like a derisive label attached by their opponents, it isn't. It is a self-applied description, happily accepted by the 45 or so members of Congress who form the coalition. The nickname comes from the South's longtime description of a party loyalist who would vote even for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot as a Democrat. These Democratic loyalists, however, said they felt as if their moderate-to-conservative views had been "choked blue" by their party.
(Others claim the term refers to the "Blue Dog" paintings of the Louisiana Cajun artist George Rodrigue hanging on the walls of the offices of Louisiana congressmen Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes. Tauzin and Hayes were such rebels against the Democratic leadership that they ultimately converted to the GOP.)
The Blue Dog group first came together early in 1995, determined to gain a voice for moderates in an often radicalized Democratic Party. But if the early Tauzin-Hayes influence on the Blue Dogs was a little parochial for the tastes of many, no one should doubt that the current version is more broad-based. In the five elections from 1996 until 2004, 18 "Blue Pups" showed their clout, not just in the South but in many parts of the country, by defeating a variety of incumbent Republicans for congressional seats.
The November 2006 election put a twin spotlight on the Blue Dogs' role. The first reason was that the Blue Dog Coalition once more was successful at the polls, scoring wins resulting in nine more congressional seats. (By some calculations, Bob Casey's victory over Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania was a similar win on the Senate side-but not many observers consider Casey much of a conservative on issues other than abortion).
The second reason for the spotlight on the Blue Dogs is the added leverage they've gained in a newly Democratic Congress. The 45 votes they represent, or any significant chunk of the 45, have become a big bargaining chip not just with the Democratic leadership, but also with the minority Republicans who will constantly look for ways to siphon them off on specific issues.
By its own public statements, the Blue Dog Coalition is more focused on fiscal than on social issues. "We want to be known," says Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, "for relentlessly pursuing a balanced budget and then for protecting that achievement from politically popular 'raids' on that budget." If for a generation that was the trademark mantra of Republicans, the 2006 election indicated that any such claim is now up for grabs by either party-or coalition within a party-that can put together a convincing argument. Republicans right now, tattooed with an almost indelible reputation for fiscal profligacy, may have the trickier task.
As for social issues, it would be hard for the Blue Dogs to make any parallel conservative claims-even if they wanted to. Out of 45 members in the coalition, only nine (a 20 percent minority) voted earlier this month against the expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Since at least seven other Blue Dog Democrats used their official websites to feature their support for the increased funding, skeptics must ask: Is there really any pattern here-or is being a Blue Dog just a matter of packaging?
Indeed, little on their own official Blue Dog website suggests any allegiance to socially conservative issues. Blue Dog loyalists tend to oppose gun control (house.gov/ross/BlueDogs/bluedogs.shtml and soon to be bluedogdems.com). A fleeting allusion to "compassionate conservatism" gives way immediately to more vigorous language on the need for a balanced budget and debt avoidance. Blue Dogs are almost universal in their opposition to any form of privatizing Social Security. The website lists 21 press releases "showing Blue Dogs at work" over the last 24 months; all 21 relate to fiscal issues.
Only one Blue Dog-Louisiana's Charles Melancon-used his website to call himself "pro-life" and "pro-family," even stressing that he believed marriage should be "between one man and one woman." But Melancon voted on Jan. 11 for more funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
Among the nine Blue Dogs voting against their party on that issue were four congressional freshmen: Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Heath Shuler of North Carolina, and Charlie Wilson of Ohio.
And on all four of the other substantive issues facing the 110th Congress during its opening sessions, all 45 members of the rebel Blue Dogs walked in lock-step with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership.
That may not matter at all to Tom Johnson, the arthritic diabetic. Or to the fellow in the Harvard sweatshirt. Or to all those who look to their congressmen mostly to solve important but personal issues. Constituent service is constituent service.
But constituent service isn't where the Blue Dog Democrats got their reputation. And so far in this session, their rebel bark has been more provocative than their bite.
- Require a balanced budget.
- Don't let Congress buy on credit.
- Put a lid on spending.
- Require agencies to put their fiscal houses in order.
- Make Congress tell taxpayers how much they're spending.
- Set aside a rainy-day fund.
- Don't hide votes to raise the debt limit.
- Justify spending for pet projects.
- Ensure that Congress read the bills it's voting on.
- Require honest cost estimates for every bill Congress votes on.
- Make sure new bills fit the budget.
- Make Congress do a better job of keeping tabs on government programs.