The Founding Class of the Blue Dog Coalition

The name of the Blue Dog Coalition was partly inspired by the canine paintings of Cajun artist George Rodrique, who often painted a blue dog with yellow eyes. The painting was on the walls in the office of Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, where Coalition members held their initial meetings.

February 14, 1995, marked the start of an organization of members that, for 25 years, has seen its membership totals mirror the success and failure of House Democrats to attain and maintain the House majority. Throughout those years, the Blue Dogs have remained consistent on their pledge of fiscal discipline, holding both parties accountable for false claims of fiscal responsibility while seeing that pledge abandoned for the political convenience of unpaid tax cuts for the wealthy or proposals for expensive new programs without a plan to pay for them.

Their first Congress as an organization set the stage for the Blue Dog Coalition to maintain its original mission for years to come: to be a voice in Washington calling for fiscal discipline, a strong national defense, responsible governance, and pragmatic, commonsense solutions. This is their story.

THE BEGINNING:

In 1994, leading up to the midterm elections, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party had taken over the Party to the point that 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, because they did not sound like the liberals who dominated the Democratic Party. Fed up with being 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…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, the November 1994 midterm election delivered what has been known as the “Republican revolution,” with Republicans gaining 54 seats in the House and eight Senate seats. The Democratic Party 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.

With President Bill Clinton facing a competitive re-election campaign in the coming years, and a narrow Republican majority, 230–205, in the House, there was a clear opportunity to create a dynamic where, together, this group of moderate Democrats could not be ignored by either party. Republicans would need their votes in order to pass bipartisan legislation that could be signed into law by a Democratic President, and Democrats would need their organization to hold votes if Republicans moved too far to the right with their agenda. President Clinton also needed to continue to deliver legislative results for the country.

Rep. Browder said the following in an interview with Certain:

“It put us in a very good position. 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 commonsense legislation that reflected the views of mainstream America.

Initially dubbing themselves “The Coalition,” the group made 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.

A longtime staffer said the following in a report by political scientist Ruth Bloch Rubin:

“Being in a minority in a minority is difficult on its face, especially when the margin of moderates on either side is so small. But the Blue Dogs didn’t come to tilt at windmills. They were smart enough to form a group so that they could maximize their individual influence.”

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.

The Blue Dog leadership team meets to discuss issues before Congress in 2011.

Early discussions primarily focused on whether the group would take formal policy positions and how to best prevent one members’ individual views from being perceived as reflecting the views of the rest of the Coalition. 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 pragmatic approach to governance. The Coalition would limit its policy focus to fiscal and national defense policy. In swing districts — where right-leaning independent voters and moderate Republican voters are necessary in order for a Democrat to win — this was key to counter the stereotype of Democrats as “tax-and-spend liberals” or weak on matters pertaining to defense and national security. The decision to define the Blue Dog Coalition based on those two specific policy issues rather than ideology would prove to be key to the organization’s survival over the following 25 years.

In an interview with Certain, Rep. Browder recalled the following regarding his beliefs on fiscal responsibility:

“I really believe that if you don’t get control of your budget, whether you’re a nation, a country, a business, or a family, you lose control of your destiny. This is a great disservice to future generations who can’t vote and make decisions. So I thought we needed to work toward balance. Not because I worship at the altar of a balanced budget, but because we needed to introduce some rationality, some accountability, some prioritization in the process. The nation’s interest payments, around 15 percent, were almost as large as the Defense budget. That was crazy. That was keeping us from spending money on good programs that people needchild programs, health care, and so forth.”

Members of the Blue Dog Coalition gather in October 1998.

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 known as 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 Democratic Party’s position or not.

Although organizing a group of members intended as means to differentiate themselves from the larger Party was thought to have been politically risky, members of the Blue Dogs found surprising support from some members of Democratic leadership. In fact, members of 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.

In an interview with Certain, Rep. Browder described Leader Gephardt’s reaction as the following:

“He was in complete agreement with our strategy. [Gephardt said,] ‘Do whatever you need to do to keep that seat in the D column. You guys perform your major contribution to the cause in helping us reach the magic 218 votes needed to put Democrats in control of every facet of House activities; anything beyond that vote is gravy for us.’”

The 1994 midterm elections delivered a freshman class of Republican House Members who had campaigned on House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, a campaign pledge to reduce government spending by about $894 billion, balance the budget, and cut taxes. Democrats had largely opposed the plan because most of the spending cuts came from Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare programs, in addition to the fact that the proposed tax cuts would go to people with higher levels of income. Meanwhile, President Clinton, who was facing a competitive re-election in the next two years, could not afford complete congressional gridlock. Although he shared the mandate of economic reform, President Clinton had his own ideas on how to best reduce spending and balance the budget. These two dynamics at the beginning of the 104th Congress presented an opportunity for the Blue Dogs to play a crucial role in breaking political gridlock, forcing a compromise between both parties, and implementing commonsense budgetary reforms.

Speaker Gingrich made it his goal to pass all provisions of the Contract within the first 100 days of the new Congress. However, in order to do that, he would need some Democratic votes. The following is an excerpt from Browder’s biography: “The Coalition, whose existence was not yet widely known, supported balancing the budget but opposed any tax cuts before that happened.”

When House Republicans brought a Balanced Budget Amendment to the floor for a vote, Blue Dog members voted for it, but then they worked with the rest of the House Democrats to block language that would have made it nearly impossible to raise taxes.

In an interview with Certain, David Plunkett, a former legislative aide to Rep. Browder, recounted the following:

“The Republicans were looking to move a constitutional amendment on budget which would have set up a situation where you could cut taxes to zero and nobody would care, but you couldn’t raise spending. And so basically you could kill all the social services by simply reducing taxes to such a level that there would be no revenues to pay for them. For rural districts, where you’ve got a lot of people who are reliant on government services…you really could not put up with that…It was the Blue Dogs basically refusing to support that and refusing to give the Republicans any kind of bipartisanship…that got the Republicans to moderate their proposal.”

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.”

Meanwhile, the Blue Dogs were already making good on their promise to buck their party when necessary. When President Clinton put forward a $1.61 trillion budget for FY1996 in early February 1995, Rep. Browder, a member of the House Budget Committee, told Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin there was a new feeling in Congress that required fiscal discipline.

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. The following is an excerpt from Ruth Bloch Rubin’s Building the Bloc: Intraparty Organization in the U.S. Congress describing the press conference:

Referencing Republicans’ Contract With America, Coalition members declared themselves in “favor [of] cutting spending first, rather than borrow and spend, tax and spend, [and] even tax-cut and spend strategy.” At the same time, they were quick to caution: “We are not about changing parties; this is not the first step in a conspiracy to register as Republicans. There is a group of us who believe in these issues, and we ought to be a legitimate voice in the Democratic Caucus.” Asked by reporters about the Blue Dog name, the lawmakers explained that, in contrast to “yellow-dog Democrats, a dying breed of southern Democrat that would vote for a yellow dog over a Republican,” the Blue Dog’s “sense of smell is more discriminating.” Condit and Peterson closed the press conference with a warning to both parties: “You can’t take us for granted…sometimes, we bite.”

FOUNDING MEMBERS OF THE BLUE DOG COALITION (104th Congress):

Rep. Scotty Baesler (KY-06)

Rep. Bill Brewster (OK-03)

Rep. Glen Browder (AL-03)

Rep. Gary Condit (CA-18)

Rep. Bud Cramer (AL-05)

Rep. Pat Danner (MO-06)

Rep. Nathan Deal (GA-09)

Rep. Pete Geren (TX-12)

Rep. Ralph Hall (TX-04)

Rep. Jimmy Hayes (LA-07)

Rep. Blanche Lambert (AR-01)

Rep. Greg Laughlin (TX-14)

Rep. Bill Lipinski (IL-03)

Rep. David Minge (MN-02)

Rep. Bill Orton (UT-03)

Rep. Mike Parker (MS-04)

Rep. L.F. Payne (VA-05)

Rep. Collin Peterson (MN-07)

Rep. Owen Pickett (VA-02)

Rep. Charlie Stenholm (TX-19)

Rep. John Tanner (TN-08)

Rep. Billy Tauzin (LA-03)

Rep. Gene Taylor (MS-05)

BLUE DOGS ESTABLISH THEMSELVES AS A PRAGMATIC VOICE IN WASHINGTON:

The 1994 midterm elections established a mandate for economic reform for President Clinton and a Republican Congress, but their visions for economic reform did not meet the other’s eye, setting up for a multi-year, partisan battle over the budget. This set the stage for the Blue Dogs to bridge the political divide.

Rep. Glen Browder of Alabama, a founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition, and President Bill Clinton shake hands following a budget meeting at the White House. (Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama)

Speaker Gingrich moved fast on the legislation that was outlined in the Contract With America. One provision was an annual recissions bill, which reclaimed money allocated in the previous year that had not been disbursed. The Republican legislation would cut $17.2 billion, and Gingrich proposed that $11.5 billion would be used as an initial payment for the tax cut bill he would later pursue. The Blue Dogs believed it was outrageous to use that saved money to pay for a tax cut while the country was facing a $180 billion deficit, and, in turn, they proposed putting those savings in a “lock box” to be used to pay down the deficit.

As Speaker Gingrich pushed for House Republicans to vote to cut taxes before taking on the budget, one of the Blue Dog Coalition’s first proposals was a policy to tie tax cuts to balancing the budget. In March 1995, Rep. Glen Browder of Alabama introduced legislation that only allowed tax cuts to be enacted once the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) certified that the budget was on track to balance by 2002 or sooner. Those tax cuts would remain active as long as the budget was balanced, but they would be revoked if the government started to enact deficit spending.

In an interview with Geni Certain, David Plunkett, a former legislative aide to Rep. Browder, recounted the following:

“Glen’s idea was that you tied future tax cuts to deficit reduction. The Republicans were pushing through a budget that would have called for reconciliation without taking account of the consequences of what the tax cut would do in regard to deficit reduction. So the tax cuts were actually going to increase the deficit over time, and anybody looking at it and looking at the numbers would see that. Glen was pushing to include language in the budget that required them to take account of those future consequences of lost revenues and find sufficient cuts to cover that. We got the Blue Dogs together on thatthat gave us a bloc of Democrats who were pushing itand got together a group called the Tuesday Group, which was moderate Republicans who were very much concerned about deficits and the national debt…We worked on that through the spring…and eventually what happened was the Republican leadership was able to reach a compromise with the moderate Republicans, and the bill that finally went out had some language on deficit reduction but didn’t have the tight limits that Glen was looking for.”

Although the Blue Dogs did not get everything they wanted, they were able to force House Republicans to come to a compromise by incorporating language on deficit reduction in the tax cut bill, otherwise known as a “fig leaf,” according to Browder. The House eventually passed the tax cut bill on April 6 with some Blue Dog support due to the compromise language on deficit reduction. This made it clear that the Blue Dogs were wielding their influence to hold Republicans accountable on deficit reduction.

The Blue Dogs remained dissatisfied with the partisan Republican budget proposal due to its significant cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and other safety net programs, in addition to the elimination of the Department of Commerce and other extreme measures. Frustrated by the lack of a Democratic alternative to the Republican proposal, the Blue Dogs began to draft their own budget proposal in May 1995. Their proposal would share the goal of eliminating the federal deficit by 2002, however, it would leave key safety net programs intact.

As the months wore on, a lack of progress in negotiations between President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress forced the government to begin to operate on a continuing resolution in order to prevent a partial government shutdown. The Blue Dogs worked to broker agreements on Medicare, welfare, and deficit reduction measures, by announcing their alternative budget, called the Common Sense Budget, in October 1995. This was the only alternative to the Republican plan. After the announcement, the Washington Post characterized the Blue Dog Coalition’s alternative budget proposal as “tougher and more credible than the president’s mushy proposal, but would leave largely intact important federal programs that the Republicans would destroy…It isn’t a perfect plan, but it is a far better solution to the deficit problem than any other in sight just now.”

Assuming their proposal would not receive any Republican votes, the Blue Dogs hoped to get significant Democratic support to ensure the proposal would be considered to be a viable compromise after President Clinton vetoed the Republican legislation. Despite President Clinton’s veto threat, House and Senate Republicans passed their measure on a party-line vote. Meanwhile, the Blue Dog Coalition’s budget earned 72 votes in the House, including some support from House Republicans. This positioned the proposal as a viable path forward in the negotiations.

The White House then acknowledged the Coalition’s budget was the likely blueprint for an agreement with House and Senate Republicans. However, reaching that agreement would not be easy. As President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich sparred for months over the path to balance the budget, the federal government partially shut down multiple times. Throughout that time, members of the Blue Dogs called for both Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton to put politics aside and re-open the government. Calling the government shutdown “the height of irresponsibility,” Rep. Bud Cramer of Alabama introduced legislation withholding pay for the President and Members of Congress during government shutdowns.

Fed up with the reckless, partisan tactics, in December 1995, the Coalition launched an aggressive effort to build bipartisan support for its Common Sense Budget. During that time, they met with President Clinton’s senior staff and administration officials as well as House Republican leadership to help broker a deal based on the Coalition’s budget.

The Los Angeles Times reported the following in December 1995:

Top Clinton aides have been courting the Blue Dogs: saying kind things about their budget, asking their advice on negotiating with the GOP, pushing to get [Rep. Charlie] Stenholm a place on the budget negotiating team.

Republicans have begun their own courtship, saying that they are prepared to cut a deal with the Blue Dogs if negotiations with the White House break down.

If budget negotiations, which may resume today, show no signs of producing more than the partisan bickering that bogged down the first week of talks, the Blue Dogs may step up pressure on Clinton to get a deal.

Republicans and the White House put forward their offers, both of which included provisions from the Blue Dog Coalition’s Common Sense Budget. President Clinton embraced the idea of balancing the budget within seven years — a move that was viewed favorably by the Coalition and moved Democratic leadership toward an agreement with Republicans. However, the Blue Dogs viewed the tax cuts included in both the White House and Republican proposals to be a sticking point in the ongoing negotiations. A breakthrough then occurred in January 1996, when moderate House Republicans offered a path to balance the budget within six years without a tax cut — a key sign of movement.

In the interest of moving closer to a deal, 26 House members — Republicans and Democrats, including some Blue Dogs — called on the White House and congressional leaders to separate the issues of cutting taxes and balancing the budget. This would prove to be a key step in forging the path to a deal.

By February 1996, the House had yet to pass five major budgets, the threat of another government shutdown remained, and the fiscal year was almost halfway over, but the Blue Dogs and other House members were determined to finish the job on the 1996 budget. Over the coming months, the Blue Dogs quietly worked with House Republicans to broker a compromise on the remaining budget bills.

In late March 1996, they reached a deal, and the House passed the last of the FY1996 budget bills on April 26, 1996. After multiple government shutdowns, Congress completing its basic job long past its deadline was not something to celebrate, but the fact that a budget was accomplished at all brought a sense of relief in Washington.

President Bill Clinton meets with members of the Blue Dog Coalition in 2011.

President Clinton credited the Blue Dogs for ending the political brinkmanship and bringing both parties together to broker a deal.

The following is an excerpt from Browder’s biography:

Not only did the Coalition budget provide the basis for the eventual agreement, but the position of the moderate Democrats also allowed Clinton to claim bipartisan support for compromise, saving face for his party when he signed the bill. “Clinton thanked us for what we did and said that he could not have done it without us,” Browder recalled. “He could not have brought the Democratic Caucus to the table…and he could not have done the deal that we did with the Republicans. The fact is we had Democrats on board, which made it legitimate for him to say he would support the bipartisan package from Congress.”

Bringing positive, fiscally responsible principles to the table and employing practical politics to push the agenda, the Blue Dogs forced the president of the United States, the Republican Party’s congressional leadership, and their own Democratic Party caucus to deal responsibly with the fiscal crisis of that period. Within the next fiscal year, the U.S. budget achieved official balance, and surpluses followed for several years thereafter.

Susan Webb Hammond, a leading Congressional scholar, claimed that the Blue Dog Coalition emerged from the 104th Congress as an “influential player” in Congress:

Among the factors that made the Coalition an influential player on major legislation were the substantive expertise that the group brought to its activity and the strategic skill of its members. As experienced, knowledgeable senior representatives, Coalition members commanded the respect, although perhaps not the support, of leaders and colleagues. Their position as a swing bloc of votes between the parties, in addition to the substantive content of the legislation they drafted, was also critical. Caucus processes contributed to their influence. The Coalition reached out to representatives beyond their membership to develop legislative provisions that a larger group would support. They sought caucus consensus on the provisions of proposed bills…The group worked within its party and with party leaders, as would be expected of a party caucus.

In less than two years, the Blue Dog Coalition successfully established itself as a voice of reason within the Democratic Party. They were credited for getting the country out of a tumultuous political battle over the budget while Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress. The founding members of the Blue Dog Coalition had successfully laid the foundation for the organization to remain a strong advocate for pragmatic solutions for years to come — one where its members would reflect the country as it evolved while maintaining their core mission: to advocate for fiscal responsibility, a strong national security and defense, and commonsense solutions.

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Official Medium for the fiscally-responsible Democratic Blue Dog Coalition in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Blue Dog Coalition

Official Medium for the fiscally-responsible Democratic Blue Dog Coalition in the U.S. House of Representatives.