Blue Dog Coalition Celebrates 25th Anniversary
WASHINGTON – It was 25 years ago Friday that 23 members of the House Democratic Caucus held a press conference to announce the formation of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of pragmatic Democrats dedicated to fiscal responsibility and ensuring a strong national defense.
In the words of Rep. Stephanie Murphy, the current Blue Dog co-chair for administration, since that day the coalition’s members have hailed from every region of the country and remained staunch advocates for fiscal discipline, a strong national defense, and pragmatic solutions in Congress.
“Throughout that time, the Coalition’s members not only established themselves to be the voice of commonsense policy and bipartisan governing, but also the majority makers for the House Democratic Caucus,” the Florida Democrat said.
“Our legacy of policy accomplishments is long and continues to grow, from bipartisan campaign finance reform to PAYGO to securing our elections. Blue Dogs remain strong, and we look forward to building on our historic legacy for many years to come,” Murphy said.
At the time of the group’s formation, its members said they felt “choked blue” by the extremes of both parties, and wanted to provide a platform for the sensible center they felt had been ostracized by the Democratic Party at the time.
Rather than base its identity on ideology, members of the new coalition decided they would unite around a shared pragmatic approach to governance.
They called themselves the Blue Dog Coalition, having chosen the Blue Dog as a sign of their independence from leadership of both parties, contrary to blind party loyalty.
Although it was viewed almost as heresy to work with members of the opposing political party, the founding Blue Dogs reached across the aisle to work with the Republican majority to get things done for their constituents.
The decision to make the Blue Dog Coalition a policy caucus rather than an ideological one has proven to be key to the group’s survival.
Speaking about the Coalition, former Alabama Congressman Bud Cramer, Chairman of Center Forward, said, “Democratic and Republican majorities have come and gone, but one thing has remained constant – the Blue Dogs’ commitment to putting partisan politics aside for the good of the country.
“These members represent the very best of the United States Congress. As a founding member of this organization that has brought members together for so long and for so many years, I know we need their voices now more than ever.”
The original principles of the Blue Dog Coalition continue to guide the caucus today. They are forever enshrined in the preamble of the organization’s bylaws:
“Members of the Blue Dog Coalition are dedicated to the financial stability and national security of the country, notwithstanding partisan political positions and personal fortune and do hereby agree to organize a Coalition to serve the interests of our country.”
Blue Dogs Key to Democrats 2018 Success
Since 1995, the Democrats have held the House majority for three Congresses. During each of those Congresses, the Coalition’s ranks made a difference, proving the path to a Democratic majority runs through the Blue Dogs.
Without the coalition and the voters who embrace its principles, the Democrat’s success in retaking the House majority in 2018 would have been impossible.
The Blue Dogs have established themselves to be “influential players on major legislation,” according to political scientist Susan Webb Hammond.
Whether in the majority or the minority, the Blue Dogs have consistently advocated for bipartisan policies able to produce meaningful change. Their policy accomplishments over the years range from campaign finance reform to fiscal reform to election security.
Throughout the organization’s history, more than 115 Members of Congress, representing districts in 37 states in all regions of the country, from Maine to Hawaii, have joined the Blue Dog Coalition. As America has evolved over the past 25 years, so too has the make-up of the members of the Blue Dog Coalition. In 1995, Democratic swing seats were primarily in rural communities, including areas of the South. Today, Blue Dogs come from not only rural communities, but also suburban-rural and suburban communities. Today’s Blue Dog Coalition reflects the diversity of the country as it is now.
Similar to the founding class, today’s Blue Dog Coalition is midsize, ensuring a level of cohesion on certain policies and ensuring the group holds the number of votes required to influence legislation.
Additionally, the Blue Dogs have repositioned themselves to be productive partners with Democratic leadership to help improve legislation prior to a vote, while also continuing to work with their Republican colleagues to produce bipartisan solutions.
How It All Began
As the 1994 midterm election approached, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party had grown to such an extent there was no room for centrist voices.
In fact, Democrats who represented conservative swing seats oftentimes found themselves having to go to House Republicans to get time to speak on the House floor.
Tired of feeling silenced and ostracized, a few Democrats came together to find a way to lift up the voice of the sensible center.
The idea came about while Reps. Glen Browder, of Alabama, Charlie Stenholm, of Texas, and Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes, of Louisiana, were on a hunting trip in 1994. They began to meet informally in Reps. Hayes’ and Tauzin’s offices with groups of three to seven members in the months of September and October.
In an interview with his biographer, Geni Certain, Rep. Browder described the conversations of those informal meetings:
“We determined that we were going to have to chart our own course. And we also plighted our troth to each other that we were willing to risk our careers in the Democratic Party,” he said.
“If you’re going to cross the Democratic Party and stay a Democrat, you’re marginalizing yourself. We accepted that and started talking about, ‘How do we build a movement?’”
Then came the reckoning. In November 1994, the GOP pulled off its “Republican revolution,” trouncing Democratic candidates en route to gaining 54 seats in the House and eight Senate seats.
By the time the dust settled, the Democratic Party had lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years, and they had also lost the Senate.
The election results made it clear to Reps. Browder, Stenholm, Tauzin, and Hayes, that Democrats suffered a huge loss because the party had lost touch with the country by moving too far to the left.
To them, there was a need for a voting bloc that represented “the middle of the partisan spectrum” and a path for the Democrats to take back the House majority.
Here, the numbers played in their favor. Because the Republican majority was a slim one, they needed the votes of moderate Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation that could be signed into law by a Democratic President.
At the same time Democrats would need the Blue Dogs to withhold votes if Republicans moved too far to the right with their agenda.
“It put us in a very good position,” Browder said in an interview with Certain. “The Republicans were going to have to work with somebody on the Democratic side. The Democrats, on the other hand, might win a few things or they could stop the Republicans if they could hold all the Democrats, so they had to work with us.”
This was an opportunity for moderates to mediate the extremes of both parties and enact legislation that reflected the views of mainstream America.
Initially dubbing themselves “The Coalition,” the group made a concerted effort after the 1994 election to build a member-driven organization. They invited members who previously joined in their informal sessions, including Collin Peterson of Minnesota. Those informal conversations from earlier in the year quickly turned into a formal mobilization.
Soon, they decided that rather than require membership to be invitation-only, that all Democratic members could seek to enter the Coalition pending approval by the group. In order to control this open-door policy, they would limit the group’s roster to 20 to 25 members, ensuring a level of cohesion among members.
The group elected Rep. Gary Condit of California to be co-chair for administration and Rep. Collin Peterson to be co-chair for policy development to reflect their reach beyond the South.
In order to prevent the Coalition from being tied to one member’s viewset, they decided that a Coalition’s policy position would require at least two-thirds majority support and they would limit the number of times one member could serve in Coalition leadership.
The members also decided that, rather than create an ideological caucus that would weigh into every issue, the Coalition would instead coalesce around a limited set of policies and a shared approach to governance. The Coalition would limit its policy focus to fiscal and national defense policy.
The members of “The Coalition” held several of their initial meetings in Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin’s office, where he had one of the famous paintings of a blue dog with yellow eyes by Cajun artist George Rodrigue hanging in his office.
At the time, the term “Yellow Dog Democrat” was a well-known term referring to Southern Democrats who vowed they would vote for an “old yellow dog” before they would vote for a Republican. The members of the Coalition wanted to select a mascot that represented independence rather than blind party loyalty. “A Blue Dog knows the way; a Blue Dog finds the truth,” Rodrigue reportedly said in 1995.
The group soon began to call themselves the Blue Dog Coalition, or more informally, Blue Dog Democrats or Blue Dogs. Contrary to Yellow Dog Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats would not always vote in lockstep with the larger party. They would vote with their districts, whether that was in line with the Democratic Party’s position or not.
Members of the Democratic leadership quickly recognized the organization as a method to protect Democrats in swing seats and to take back the House majority. As they were forming the Blue Dog Coalition behind the scenes, several Blue Dog members informed then-House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt of what they were doing.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus at the time of the emergence of the Blue Dog Coalition, made the following observation in an interview with Certain:
“I think the Blue Dogs surprised the Republicans in that they had the courage of their convictions in terms of, ‘Look we’re for a balanced budget. You’re not going to get a balanced budget unless you make the tough choices that need to be made. If you want to cut taxes, you cut spending. Or if you want to increase spending, you either raise taxes or cut other objects and, in effect, keep your balance in the budget.’ And I think that, frankly, being in the minority, the Democratic Blue Dogs showed their intellectual integrity,” Hoyer said.
After months of quietly organizing and testing its structure, on February 14, 1995, the Blue Dog Coalition announced its formation in a press conference in Washington, D.C.. All 23 members were present wearing Blue Dog lapel pins.
A Legacy of Policy Success
Since the founding of the Blue Dog Coalition, its members have diligently fought for fiscal discipline, a strong national security, and good government reforms. The Blue Dogs have also historically put forward policy proposals as a way to identify a bipartisan path forward to break the gridlock in Washington. These are some of the accomplishments that have played a crucial role in the organization’s legacy.
- Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform: In 1997, while the House was under Republican control, Blue Dog members Charlie Stenholm of Texas and Scotty Baesler of Kentucky worked with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to draft campaign finance reform legislation that would set stronger limits on the amount of money candidates could receive from their national political party and certain nonprofit organizations. The BLue Dogs then worked to secure the support of moderate Republicans, which would be critical to the bill’s passage. Although the bill passed the House in 1998, it was later blocked by the Republican Senate. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The group preserved. After four more years of advocacy, the coalition gained the necessary 218 signatures to force House Speaker Dennis Hastert to allow the measure to be considered on the House floor. On February 14, 2002, the House passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, by a vote of 240–189, and the legislation was signed into law by President George W. Bush on March 27, 2002.
- Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO): Although the bipartisan Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) budget rule has taken slightly different forms over the years, its role has remained the same: to force lawmakers to pay for new priorities in order prevent the national debt and budget deficit from getting worse. First enacted in 1990 in statutory form, which required the House and Senate to abide by the rule with enforceable consequences, PAYGO remained in place until it expired in 2002. The measure has been credited for leading to budget surpluses in the 1990s. When Republicans allowed the measure to expire in 2002, the Blue Dogs launched an effort to get Congress to reenact statutory PAYGO. Their efforts paid off in 2010 when President Obama signed the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010 into law, which established “a new budget enforcement mechanism generally requiring that direct spending and revenue legislation enacted into law not increase the deficit.”
In addition to advocating for statutory PAYGO, the Blue Dogs have also continuously called for PAYGO to be included as part of House rules. During the 116th Congress, the measure received bipartisan support, including the support of almost every House Democrat.
- No Budget, No Pay: A longtime advocate for congressional reform and member of the Blue Dog Coalition, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee first introduced the No Budget, No Pay Act in 2011 after a Nashville constituent asked why Congress could miss budget and tax deadlines while the public has no such luxury. The Blue Dog Coalition backed the measure as a commonsense solution to force Congress to do its job on time, and has continued to advocate for the legislation to be implemented in its original form. Congress overwhelmingly passed, and President Obama signed into law, a watered-down, one-year version of Rep. Cooper’s No Budget, No Pay Act in 2013. That year, the House and Senate passed individual budgets for the first time in four years. To this day, the Blue Dogs continue to call on Congress to pass Rep. Cooper’s original, permanent measure, citing the temporary 2013 measure as proof that the policy can work. Today, No Budget, No Pay remains the cornerstone of the Blue Dog Coalition’s government reform policy platform.
- Fighting to End Partisan Gerrymandering: Under the leadership of Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee, the Blue Dog Coalition began to take up the fight against partisan gerrymandering. Rep. Tanner first introduced legislation during the 109th Congress to require states to establish a bipartisan commission to redraw congressional district lines. Members agreed that partisan gerrymandering was driving out moderates from both parties, and, in turn, contributing to the increased partisan gridlock in Congress.
In addition to supporting Rep. Tanner’s Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, the Blue Dogs have also long supported Rep. Tanner’s Redistricting Transparency Act, which would require states to publicize redistricting information online, including the data used in the process, details of the process, proposed maps and public hearing dates. Since Rep. Tanner’s retirement in 2010, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee has taken up the mantle to reintroduce both pieces of legislation each Congress, and the Blue Dogs continue to back both measures today. During the 116th Congress, the Blue Dogs fought to include and successfully secured redistricting reform measures in H.R. 1.
- Advocating for Fiscal Responsibility: Since its founding, the Blue Dog Coalition has advocated for balanced, bipartisan measures that will put the country on the path to fiscal sustainability. The group has long put pressure on Republican and Democratic leaders to work with one another to put forward bipartisan budgets rather than ones with only one party’s support. As part of its fiscal policy platform, the Coalition has long supported the concept of a Balanced Budget Amendment while protecting key safety net programs, including Social Security and Medicare.
In its early years, the Coalition produced alternative budgets as a mechanism to force Republicans — who held slim House majorities from 1995 until 2007 — to moderate their approach to putting the nation on the path to fiscal sustainability. As the nation’s fiscal state continued to worsen, the Coalition changed its strategy to instead put forward a blueprint for fiscal reform. This strategy led to many successes, including the implementation of several key policies. Today, the Blue Dogs continue to support a Balanced Budget Amendment that protects key safety net programs, and put forward a blueprint for fiscal reform to help put the nation back on the path to fiscal sustainability.
- Enhancing Economic Growth: The Blue Dog Coalition has long been committed to ensuring that government regulations do not inhibit economic growth in addition to identifying other policies that enhance job creation.
Throughout the group’s history, they have backed measures to modify, consolidate or repeal existing regulations that harm private sector growth and innovation.
Additionally, the Coalition has backed certain measures to create jobs, such as policies that would entice American companies selling their goods and services abroad to bring earnings back to the United States for investment, and other measures to ensure workers have the skills America’s manufacturers need to compete in today’s economy.
- Strengthening National Security: In recent years, the Blue Dog Coalition has expanded its policy portfolio on national defense to include national security matters, with the goal of pursuing smart, strategic national security policies that will strengthen the country’s national defense and ensure the safety of the United States in the face of evolving threats both at home and abroad.
Historically, the Coalition has supported sufficient funding to support the U.S. military and continues to do so today. In recent years, the Coalition has weighed into other means to strengthen national security.
During the 115th Congress, the Blue Dogs backed a bipartisan measure to establish a whole-of-government strategy to combat the financing of terrorism. The measure was signed into law in 2017.
After the horrific events that took place in Charlottesville, Va, in August 2017, the Blue Dogs called on the House Homeland Security Committee to hold public hearings regarding domestic terrorism related to white supremacist groups.In addition to that, the Blue Dogs backed the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which aims to prevent acts of domestic terrorism by white supremacists and other extremist groups. They continue to support the measure today.
- Securing U.S. Elections: In the wake of the conclusions presented in Volume I of the Mueller report, the Blue Dog Coalition took the lead in Congress to call for a comprehensive, bipartisan effort to secure U.S. elections, hold Russia accountable for its attempts to meddle in the 2016 and 2018 elections, and deter other adversaries from interfering in future elections. In the summer of 2019, the Blue Dogs took initiative to raise the alarm by endorsing a package of legislative proposals that have earned bipartisan support in the House and Senate. The news of the Blue Dog proposal received praise from political leaders, policy experts, and organizations with national security expertise. Additionally, the threat of increased sanctions on Russia included in the Blue Dog proposal caused the value of the Russian ruble to drop.
- Providing a Voice for Rural America: For the first time in the Coalition’s history, during the 115th Congress, the Blue Dogs launched a task force focused on producing meaningful solutions for the rural communities across the country that were left behind after the Great Recession.
Through that effort, the Coalition’s members — many of whom represent districts that include rural and underserved communities — provided a voice for rural America within the Democratic Caucus. The Blue Dog Special Task Force on Rural America put forward an agenda intended to provide a roadmap for Congress to take a commonsense, bipartisan approach to revitalizing rural communities and addressing the level of inequality between rural and urban America.
In the 116th Congress, the Blue Dog Coalition established the Task Force on Rural Opportunity to ensure that the group would continue to provide a voice for rural communities within the Democratic Caucus.
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