Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2005 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan 5766
John H. Fund
Pelosi's Poodles: Blue Dog Dems go to obedience school
Out of control spending finally became an issue last September after Hurricane Katrina. Rep. Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican, said many of his colleagues were shocked when their leaders asked them to vote for $62 billion in hurricane relief "even though we knew a lot of the money may go to waste." The House Republican leadership refused to let some conservatives bring a bill to the floor to offset some of the emergency spending by cutting other government programs.
The negative publicity over Katrina spending and egregious pork-barrel projects in the federal transportation bill, symbolized by the now-cancelled "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, prompted a public outcry. Suddenly, President Bush and GOP leaders began siding with taxpayer groups in recognizing the need to begin putting the brakes on spending.
The road back will be difficult, especially since 54% of federal spending goes for entitlement programs ranging from food stamps to Medicaid. Those programs are on automatic pilot and likely to double in cost over the next decade. The new prescription drug benefit that began accepting enrollees this month will only add to that burden.
This month, the Senate moved a budget bill under a process called reconciliation that would slow the growth of entitlements by $35 billion over the next five years, or 0.2% of projected federal spending over that time . The House proposed somewhat bigger cuts, some $50 billion over five years. But even that miniscule adjustment proved too much for two blocs of House members: about two dozen moderate Republicans and the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, a group of 36 centrists who profess to care about the size of the federal budget and deficit. With Republicans holding only a 30-seat majority in the House, members of the two groups can determine the fate of all legislation.
Last week, they did precisely that. Last Thursday the House rejected by 224-209 a bill that would have slightly trimmed health and education spending for the coming year. A total of 22 Republicans, almost all moderates, broke ranks to defeat the bill. Not a single Democrat voted for the bill. The next day, the House finally passed a five-year budget plan, 217-215. Again every Democrat opposed it, as did 14 Republicans, all but two of them moderates.
Media attention has focused on the GOP moderates, generally portraying them as finally standing up to their leadership by opposing heartless cuts in social programs. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a rural New York Republican, was quoted as calling the original package of budget cuts "far too high" and complaining that GOP leaders were trying to "clone" everyone in the party into one mold. Despite his rhetoric, he provided a critical vote to pass the budget last Friday after he was promised more money for low-income energy assistance along with the promise of an extension for one of several federal programs that subsidize dairy farmers when prices drop.
Much less attention has been paid to the role of the Blue Dog Democrats, who have voted in lockstep with the rest of their party to oppose all spending cuts. The Blue Dogs talk a great game. They properly excoriate the Bush administration's fiscal record and have proposed a 12-step plan to control spending, which includes such sensible ideas as honest budget accounting. Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee has bravely called for delaying or ending the new prescription drug entitlement.
What the Blue Dogs haven't done is provide votes for any slowdown in federal spending. They complain they haven't been consulted by GOP leaders, and there is some truth to that. But the unmistakable impression is that they are now putting short-term partisanship ahead of good policy by trying to make the House ungovernable. It's not that Blue Dogs haven't provided votes to pass bipartisan legislation in the past. When a bankruptcy reform bill came up this year, 73 Democrats voted in favor. Forty-two Democrats voted to repeal the estate tax permanently, and 50 Democrats backed class-action lawsuit reform. But on the budget? Nada, zip, not a one.
That is a far cry from 1997, when the House was even more closely divided and the last time Congress tried to pass a budget under the reconciliation process. At that time 51 Democrats voted for a budget that contained far deeper reductions in domestic spending. Twelve of those 51 were Blue Dogs who are still serving in the House.
Blue Dogs like California's Rep. Dennis Cardoza claim the times are different because the GOP budget blueprint will now actually increase the deficit. That's because Republicans plan to make some of President Bush's tax cuts permanent, thus expanding the deficit overall. But Republicans reply that separate votes are held on the budget cuts and tax policy. "There is no arguing that the reconciliation bill reduces the growth in federal spending by $50 billion," says Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. "That's an up-or-down vote no Democrat would vote in favor of." She also points out that the tax cuts on capital gains and dividends the Blue Dogs are balking at extending helped create three million new jobs in the past two years and helped bring in a revenue stream that has knocked $95 billion off of this year's anticipated deficit. By their actions, the Blue Dogs are unwilling to vote for spending restraint while at the same time they oppose growth-oriented tax cuts. That's a recipe for a much bigger deficit in the long run.
One reason for their reluctance to cross the aisle and back any GOP budget is party pressure. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, furious that Blue Dogs provided the critical votes that passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement earlier this year, has laid down the law on party discipline. While it has never been made explicit, House Democrats I spoke with are convinced they will lose committee assignments if they vote for a GOP-backed budget. How else to explain the complete unanimity of opposition from House Democrats?
The spending restraint that Congress is attempting now is both late and puny. But it is a start. It is being thwarted by two groups of members acting out of short-term expediency.
GOP moderates, including some from marginal districts, have convinced themselves that they can't sell their constituents on the radical notion that entitlement spending should be held to growth of 6.3% a year instead of 6.4%.
Blue Dog Democrats, catching the scent of Republican disarray, have decided to exploit their advantage. That's understandable for a party that's been out of power in Congress for the last decade. But the Blue Dogs shouldn't claim it has anything to do with principle or a desire to begin holding down federal spending.
Democratic leaders like Ms. Pelosi have plans to expand the federal government that even spendthrift Republicans can't keep up with. If the Blue Dogs won't oppose their liberal leaders by voting for modest spending restraint now, they don't inspire any confidence that they will buck them if their party takes the House and liberal interest groups start demanding their turn at the federal through.
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