- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Walking through the corridors of the House office buildings on Capitol Hill these days, you’ll routinely run into the same large poster prominently displayed outside certain representatives’ offices. Regularly updated, these placards, which resemble purloined junior-high science fair projects, display the mounting federal debt and your share of it.

Members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of about 35 self-described moderate-to-conservative Democrat lawmakers historically concerned about the budget deficit, conceived the idea — a kind of fiscal Cassandra on cardboard. But when these lawmakers had a chance to trim the deficit by nearly $50 billion last week as the House voted on the spending portion of the fiscal 2006 budget reconciliation bill, every single Blue Dog Coalition member voted no. Unfortunately, when it comes to actually voting for new fiscal restraint, these dogs are up to some old partisan tricks.

Created 10 years ago, the Blue Dog Coalition was formed because, according to the group’s Web site, some moderate Democrats felt they were “choked blue by their party’s leaders leading up to the 1994 election.” No doubt the tax-and-spend policies of the increasingly liberal Democratic leadership over the past decade in Congress did not play well back home for these representatives. For example, President Bush carried 22 of 35 Blue Dog districts in 2004. The coalition aims to allow these lawmakers to differentiate themselves rhetorically from the national Democratic Party and talk about issues in a manner more popular with the folks at home. But when it comes to fiscal restraint, “talk” is about all they do.

Bitten by the rancorous partisanship and polarization rampant in Washington over the past decade, these lawmakers come from a different kennel than Southern Democrats in Congress during the 1980s. Conservative Democrats back then, like former Reps. Ed Jenkins of Georgia, Earl Hutto of Florida or Walter Jones Sr. of North Carolina, talked the talk, but also bucked their party leadership on key budget and tax votes.

For example, in the summer of 1989, House Democratic leaders suffered a stunning defeat when 64 members broke with their party and voted to cut the capital-gains tax. These Southern Democrats joined with the Republicans (then in the minority), giving newly elected President George H.W. Bush a major legislative victory and the liberal House Democratic leadership a big black eye.

But in today’s more partisan environment, opposing whatever Republicans support is the Democrats’ highest calling, and Blue Dog rhetoric challenges credulity. They argue the budget bill is a sham because Republicans plan to pass subsequent legislation that cuts taxes and arguably adds to the debt. The combination of these two bills, they say, will increase the deficit. That’s a stretch. Why not support a bill that reduces the deficit and then vote against the tax measure? It’s interesting that while moderate Northeast Republican lawmakers from probably more ideologically liberal districts, like Sherry Boehlert of New York or Mike Castle of Delaware, could justify voting for the budget bill last week, Blue Dogs could not.

The deficit reduction legislation now moves to a House-Senate conference. The Senate-passed measure trims about $15 billion less in spending over five years. Interestingly, the biggest obstacle to reaching an agreement between the chambers turns less on spending and more on whether to include a provision authorizing energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. In what amounts to a legislative Rubik’s Cube, Republicans may not be able to pass the conference report in the House with this item included, but Senate Republicans will balk if it’s omitted.

But when it comes to spending, expect House-Senate negotiators to split the difference and agree on a package that trims the deficit by about $40 billion over five years. That’s not a radical step in the context of a $2 trillion budget, but certainly a step in the right direction. The Blue Dogs could have another chance to vote to reduce the deficit and maybe adjust those placards outside their offices when the House considers this conference report in December. But don’t hold your breath. Because when it comes to hunting for fiscal restraint, these dogs don’t.

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