Blue Dogs let us down, say liberals

Liberal House Democrats say they’ ve been betrayed by their conservative Blue Dog colleagues.


Months after shelving their doubts and helping Blue Dog Democrats get their signature issue of statutory pay-as-you-go language signed into law, some liberals say conservative Democrats have reneged on their side of the agreement.

They say they received assurances that Blue Dogs would support “emergency” spending measures intended to bolster the economy and help the unemployed even if they added to the deficit.

Designating the measures as “emergency” spending was supposed to exempt them from the new pay-go law, which requires new government spending to be offset with other cuts.

Instead, Blue Dog objections related to the deficit forced House leaders to strip COBRA healthcare benefits and a package of aid to states prized by liberals from the tax extenders bill.

Blue Dogs, along with a handful of freshman and sophomore Democrats, continued to object to the stripped-down package, eventually approved by the House, over its codification of another round of benefits to the unemployed as emergency spending.

“In my mind, disappointment is a good word, because there was indeed, I thought, an understanding,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus.

“I think the understanding was that once pay-go was in place, we’d be moving on to making proper investments in things like healthcare and education, and that we’d be given the benefit of the doubt when it came to making investments in those priorities,” Grijalva said. “And we felt that when it came to emergencies, things like summer jobs, things like [unemployment insurance], those votes would be there.”

Liberals are second-guessing their endorsement of a measure they feel is now strangling their constituents in a shortsighted effort to claim the high ground on fiscal responsibility.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, saw her $1 billion summer jobs program, intended to lower an unemployment rate among inner-city youth nearing 40 percent, delayed yet again.

“I’m disappointed in those who convinced us on pay-go,” Lee said. “We were convinced that those members would do the right thing in an emergency.”

A senior Democratic aide said that the pay-go pitch to liberals was that it’s in everyone’s interest to get a handle on spending so there is room for the party’s priorities.

But any agreement about how leaders would handle emergency economic measures appears to have been lost in translation.

“While it was clear that there would be exemptions to deal with the recession and other emergencies, the majority of the House has to agree that there is an emergency before something can be passed as an emergency measure,” the aide said.

For the Blue Dogs, the point of pay-go is to force the government into making tough decisions.

“Because we care about the future of our country, we’re working to decrease the deficit, cut spending and bring down the national debt over time,” Blue Dog Co-Chairwoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) said in a statement. “We understand that this requires some difficult decisions and that it won’t happen overnight, but we stand ready to work with anyone who’s willing to work with us to pay for our shared policy priorities.”

But a world in which everything is paid for all the time is not one that all Democrats are comfortable living in, especially with the economy still struggling and unemployment hovering near 10 percent.

“The danger is that we can’t do what we promised to do,” said Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.). “It stops us, as we saw [before recess], with jobs, it stops us with veterans... And yet we fund the war and we fund the defense budget without pay-go.

“It tilts us away from our domestic concerns toward these foreign adventures, and I just don’t think that’s a good tradeoff,” said Filner, one of only five Democrats to reject pay-go both times. “I have about 20 bills, billions of dollars, stalled because of pay-go. And we’re talking about stuff like Agent Orange claims. These guys have been suffering for 30 years, and I don’t have the money.”

The family feud between liberal and conservative Democrats over discretionary spending is certain to continue as long as Democrats retain their majority. The fight is now focused on which economic fixes win “emergency” designation and which do not.

The ill-defined “emergency” pay-go exemption is leading to a “free-for-all every time something comes up,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), one of the earlier liberal converts to the pay-go cause.

“Everything is going to be a fight on these things. And it’s because we have a genuine dilemma. We have an economy that is hurting, and people who are out of work, but we’ve got a budget deficit that has swollen to dangerous levels and we’ve got to address it.”

“And how do you do both?” Welch asked. “That’s a very difficult thing to accomplish in an uncertain world and in a tough political environment.”