Heath Shuler knows how to make a splash when he comes to Washington. He began his first stint in the nation’s capital as quarterback for the Washington Redskins, the third overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft. Shuler held out on training camp until he was awarded a seven-year, $19.25 million contract.
Shuler seemed to attract nearly as much attention when he returned to Washington as a congressman from North Carolina. After he unseated eight-term Republican congressman Charles Taylor in 2006, Democrats celebrated Shuler as proof their party could win again in Southern, culturally conservative areas. No congressional district was safe from the emerging Democratic majority. But Shuler held out on his new team too: the pro-life, pro-gun, anti-amnesty evangelical Christian promised to buck House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership on a regular basis. Conservatives held him up as evidence that conservatism wasn’t to blame for the GOP’s recent drubbings.
The Redskins benched and then traded Shuler back in the 1990s. Sometimes, the Democratic congressional leadership probably wishes it could do the same thing. During the stimulus debate, Shuler said publicly that Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “failed” to act in a bipartisan manner. He voted against the package both times. Reid’s office did not hide its displeasure. The majority leader’s spokesman cracked, “Let me get this straight—this is coming from a guy who threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns?”
Reid’s man is right about his football statistics. During four seasons in the NFL, Shuler threw 32 interceptions while recording just 15 touchdowns, completing fewer than half his passes for an abysmal 54.3 lifetime passer rating. It remains to be seen whether he will enjoy more success in his latest team sport: trying to keep Capitol Hill Democrats from veering too far to the left. In 2006, the party’s national leaders valued Democrats like Shuler. They don’t need them as much now that their majorities are bigger. Shuler today is part of a team within a team: the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 51 centrist to conservative Democrats who mostly hail from districts where it’s not easy for a dyed-in-the-wool liberal to beat a generic Republican. With Republicans almost completely shut out of power, business groups and some conservative interests have been looking at the Blue Dogs as the last line of defense against Reid, Pelosi, and President Barack Obama.
The Blue Dog Political Action Committee nearly doubled its fundraising haul in 2008 over the midterm elections, approaching the top of congressional PACs. By the fall of last year, it had collected more than $2.3 million, including $455,800 from the health care industry, $440,500 from the financial sector, and $150,000 from traditionally Republican agribusiness. Individual Blue Dogs fared even better: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, they raised $7.5 million from finance, $3.8 million from health care, and $3.7 million from the agricultural sector.
Even the National Rifle Association ponied up, giving nearly $5,000 to the Blue Dog PAC in 2008. “We’ve supported the Blue Dogs since the Blue Dogs were conceived or born,” NRA Institute for Legislative Action executive director Chris Cox told Roll Call last year. Cox himself is a former aide to Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee, a top Blue Dog rainmaker. A BKSH & Associates lobbyist quoted in the same story said of the Blue Dogs, “Much of corporate Washington has glommed onto them like white on rice.”
The Blue Dogs have plenty of friends and alumni in high places. Former Blue Dog chairman Charles Stenholm, a longtime conservative Democratic congressman from Texas, is a K Street lobbyist affiliated with Olsson Frank Weeda. Others are ensconced in different high-powered firms. And in the last Congress, they held the balance of power—serving mem- bers of the Blue Dog Coalition exceeded the Democrats’ margin in the House. They had the ear of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rahm Emanuel, now the White House chief of staff. They were well funded, well covered by the press, and well placed to affect legislative outcomes.
Until Obama’s coattails grew the Democratic majority to the point that the Blue Dogs were no longer essential to the legislative process in the House. Observes Christopher Hayes, Washington editor of the Nation, “in the 111th Congress, the Democrats’ margin is big enough to pass legislation without a single Republican or Blue Dog vote.” Perhaps that’s why the Speaker of the House often takes them as seriously as her Senate counterpart takes Heath Shuler’s professional football record. “Speaking of the Blue Dogs,” a reporter began a question at Pelosi’s weekly press conference. “Were we speaking about them?” she replied, according to Politico.
The first sign of the moderates’ relative weakness appeared before the new Congress was even sworn in. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan was squaring off against Rep. Henry Waxman of California for chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Although the Blue Dog Coalition didn’t take an official position (that requires a two-thirds vote of the members), most of them were backing Dingell because Waxman was too far to the left on environmental regulation. Yet Waxman won by a 137 to 122 margin. Dingell, the most senior House Democrat, has built more than 50 years of political alliances in Washington.
The Blue Dogs’ ranks were augmented by the votes of many Congressional Black Caucus members and those of other Democrats interested in preserving seniority for committee chairs. If the moderates couldn’t prevail within the Democratic caucus under those conditions, it is hard to see when they could do so.
OF COURSE, the Blue Dogs don’t have to carry the day inside the Democratic caucus when they can add their votes to unanimously opposed Republicans. Consider moderate misgivings about the stimulus. “I got in terrible trouble with our leadership because they don’t care what’s in the bill; they just want it to pass and they want it to be unanimous,” Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee complained on a Nashville radio program. “We’re just treated like mushrooms most of the time.” Some Blue Dogs pressed for substantive concessions, like pay-go rules requiring all tax cuts and spending increases to be offset by tax hikes or budget cuts. Others preferred the symbolic route of a White House “fiscal responsibility summit.”
Either way, the Blue Dogs’ bark proved worse than their bite. They accepted that their proposed budget rules would never be applied to the stimulus package, despite its $1 trillion price tag (counting interest). Then they were willing to settle for a vote on those rules rather than their passage. True, more than half the Blue Dogs sided against their party’s leadership after receiving only token assurances on their rules change (though nearly as many Blue Dogs voted with the leadership). But only six of their members plus one additional Democrat from a conservative district bothered to vote against the precompromise stimulus bill.
“We didn’t want to embarrass the president,” Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, a Blue Dog cochairman, explained to reporters. So they got letters reaffirming the administration’s support for pay-go. They got their late February fiscal responsibility summit (with entitlement reform mostly taken off the agenda). But at the price of helping pass an actual piece of legislation that will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions and likely swell the annual budget deficit to $1.9 trillion. After the compromise with the Senate, which cut $100 billion in House spending only after senators added a comparable amount of their own largesse, the number of Democrats opposing the stimulus fell from 11 to seven.
One of those Democrats, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, opposed the package from the left because it contained too many tax cuts and too little spending. The other six no votes, like Shuler, came from relatively conservative—and comparatively unsafe—districts. Leading Blue Dogs like Melancon and Cooper, the man who didn’t want to be treated like a mushroom, joined the overwhelming majority of their Democratic colleagues in voting yes.
Maybe they will have more muscle in upcoming debates over health care and card check. Moderates may also be heeded in debates over social issues, like taxpayer funding of abortion, since they represent the districts most likely to fall to Republicans in the next unfavorable election cycle. But so far, business groups haven’t seen much return on their investment in the Blue Dogs this time around. If it continues to resemble Shuler’s Redskins contract, it will be one costly bust.