Outside the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) sits an easel with a large white posterboard and an even larger number on display. Big black letters announce: "Today the U.S. National Debt is: $8,884,000,000,000. Your share of the National Debt: $29,000." Emblazoned across the top: The Blue Dog Coalition.
It's a sobering figure-and a central message for the group of conservative Democrats who came into office in January claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility.
Identical signs are posted outside the offices of the 43 Blue Dog congressmen as symbols of their fiscal platform, which urges Congress to require a balanced budget and "put a lid on spending." But only months after a campaign season that prioritized budget reform, political votes about funding for the war in Iraq have tested-and frayed-the Blue Dog commitment to curbing congressional excess.
When the House attached withdrawal deadlines to supplemental Iraq War funding in late March, Democrats touted the bill as a victory in the foreign policy feud between Congress and the president. But to garner the votes in the narrow 218-212 tally, the bill also included $24 billion in extra spending on agriculture and unrelated projects-several in Blue Dog home districts. A House-Senate conference later took out some of the most egregious pork, but by then the Blue Dogs had shown their budgetary colors (the House approved the conference report April 25, 218-208).
The original $24 billion included: $25 million for payments to spinach producers, $120 million to the shrimp industry, $74 million for peanut storage, and $5 million for shellfish, oyster, and clam producers.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) later quipped: "Spinach, shrimp, peanuts and shellfish? That's not a war funding bill, that's the salad bar at Denny's."
Of the 36 Blue Dogs who voted for the bill, the fiscally conservative Club for Growth targeted five freshman Democrats-including Shuler and Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.)-who had promised fiscal responsibility on the campaign trail. According to Mahoney's campaign website, his midterm platform included a promise to "Cut the Pork" by enacting earmark reform, but Mahoney, who won the seat of disgraced former congressman Mark Foley, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Founded in 1995, the Blue Dog Coalition adapted its nickname from the traditional description of a party loyalist-a Southerner who would vote Democrat even with a "Yellow Dog" on the ballot. Twelve years later, the Blue Dog Coalition now has teeth, comprising a 43-vote bloc in a House with a 15-vote Democratic majority ("Blue Dogs hunt," Jan. 27). The Blue Dogs did flex their collective bicep in the debate about Iraq War funding, altering the bill to preclude spending any money to fight Iran and to require the Iraqi government to meet certain benchmarks, even after a U.S. pullout. All the while, the pork survived.
In a statement issued after the vote, Shuler admitted that he would prefer some of the supplemental programs to be "funded elsewhere." While he had once attacked Republicans for "irresponsible earmarks," Shuler insisted that voting for the emergency bill was the right decision. "I have listened to my constituents, and I have prayed," he said. "I am confident that supporting this bill is the proper course of action."
Still other Blue Dogs questioned whether the earmarks in the Iraq funding bill violated their creed. Blue Dog Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.)-whose district was to benefit from $74 million to fund peanut storage-explained his vote to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "One man's pork is another man's sustenance."
Miscellany in the House supplemental appropriations bill:
- $283 million for the Milk Income Loss Contract program;
- $120 million to compensate for the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the shrimp and menhaden fishing industries;
- $100 million for citrus assistance;
- $60.4 million for salmon fisheries in the Klamath River region in California and Oregon;
- $50 million for asbestos mitigation at the U.S. Capitol Plant;
- 16 million for security upgrades to House of Representatives office buildings;
- $6.4 million for House of Representatives Salaries and Expenses Account for business continuity and disaster recovery expenses.
Source: Citizens Against Government Waste