The Blue Dogs are looking to get some of their bark back.
The coalition of moderates that represented about 20 percent of the Democratic caucus the last time their party controlled the House all but disappeared after 2010.
“I get the question back home all the time, ‘Do the Blue Dogs still exist?’” said a longtime member, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
But this Congress, with Democrats back in control of the House, the Blue Dogs are adding to their numbers and, they hope, to their clout.
The group has 27 members in this Congress, up from 18 in the 115th Congress. That’s still only half the number they had in 2008 when membership peaked at 54, but the coalition is on an “upward projection, and we have enough members to have a voice now,” said the Blue Dogs’ policy chairman, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona.
There are plenty of Blue Dogs now to prevent a Democratic bill from passing the House, if they want to stop or revise the measure. Democrats currently control the House 235-198, and it takes 217 votes to pass a bill with the two vacancies currently. That means Speaker Nancy Pelosi can only lose 18 Democratic votes and still pass a bill if no Republicans support it.
The group originally formed after the 1994 midterm elections when Republicans took control of both chambers. Prioritizing financial stability and national security, a group of southern Democrats realized both parties had shifted too far to the left and right of their respective parties.
They officially established the Blue Dog Coalition on Feb. 14, 1995. It’s strictly a policy coalition and doesn’t take sides on social issues, but membership has become more diverse than many years ago. Almost 30 percent of members are people of color, 19 percent are women, and 44 percent represent districts where President Donald Trump won in 2016.
“Today we have probably our most diverse leadership we’ve ever had,” O’Halleran said.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, a former businesswoman and college instructor, is one of four co-chairs of the coalition and is the first woman of color to lead the group. Other co-chairs include:
- O’Halleran is a former Chicago homicide investigator who serves on the House Ag Committee.
- Rep. Lou Correa of California is a former investment banker and real estate broker, who spent most of his political career supporting legislation to help the middle class. Correa, O’Halleran, and Murphy were elected in 2016.
- Freshman Rep. Anthony Brindisi of New York will fill a new whip position to organize the coalition.
Ten members are new: Brindisi, Ed Case of Hawaii, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Ben McAdams of Utah, Max Rose of New York, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Xochitl Torres Small, New Mexico, and Jeff Van Drew, New Jersey. The full list of Blue Dog members is here.
Joining the Blue Dogs requires assenting to a few policy principles, leaders say.
“If you believe we have to have an appropriate level of funding for the government and public policy, that is a qualifier. You also have to believe in the security of our country, and then you have to be able to fight for those issues,” O’Halleran said.
The big question is whether the Blue Dogs have the numbers and the attitude to pull the caucus to the center at a time when media-savvy progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York are tugging the party to the left. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has 98 members plus one: U.S. Sen., Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Peterson doesn’t think the Blue Dogs will have the bite they did when Democrats last controlled the House from 2007-2011.
“People were different and more willing to take on the establishment. That’s the big difference. Now you have the New Democrats and the Problem Solvers (two other coalitions of moderates). It remains to be seen what niche we have if any,” Peterson said.
He doesn’t foresee any members “rocking the boat” with leadership.
But Blue Dog Rep. Kurt Schrader, a veterinarian from Oregon, thinks 27 is the sweet spot needed to influence leadership. “It’s actually better, we had some members that maybe weren’t real Blue Dogs when we were at 54. Now we’re at 26 with a couple of new ones and will be a tight-knit group and encourage leadership to move in a more bipartisan way,” Schrader said.
Schrader said in 2010, the group was a loose coalition and surprised each other which ultimately allowed them to be picked off one by one. He said the new members understand their future in Congress lies with working in a bipartisan manner.
The group also has done well at getting coveted committee assignments. “From Energy and Commerce, to Ways and Means, to Appropriations, that all bodes well for the Blue Dogs,” said California Rep. Jim Costa, who begins his 15th year as a member.
Peterson controls House Ag and has several fellow Blue Dogs on the committee, with two chairing subcommittees.
Spanberger chairs Conservation and Forestry and Costa chairs Livestock and Foreign Agriculture. Other House Ag members include: David Scott of Georgia, Brindisi, and Van Drew. Three of the members — Peterson, Costa and Schrader — are farmers. Although Schrader does not currently sit on the Ag committee, he helped write the 2014 farm bill during the conference committee.
The group plans to meet once a week to discuss legislative priorities. O’Halleran said they would likely continue to have a rural task force, as well as a labor task force. With the government now reopened, Schrader hopes to see some sort of deal reached with the president regarding border security, perhaps comprehensive immigration reform in return for money for the wall. Ag labor is a major concern among farmers in his district.
“For a lot of farming communities, that is absolutely the number-one issue I hear all the time. Why don’t we just fix that and take care of families at the border. I would be willing to make that trade,” Schrader said.
Some sort of physical barrier is not unpopular in his district, along with other Blue Dogs. “A lot of Republicans represent farming and ag communities, why the hell wouldn’t they be in favor of comprehensive immigration reform? I think they would, and it would be a huge win-win,” Schrader said.
On Jan. 25, the coalition sent a letter to Republican and Democratic leadership regarding border security and the government shutdown. The letter asked both parties to come together to open the government and provide a long-term solution to strengthen border security.
O'Halleran said they are going to be more proactive on policy and be more organized.
“We’re always going to have this struggle while we have a $22 trillion deficit and our group is one that looks at this and says, ‘We can address some of these other issues, but we have to do it in a way that’s not going to kill our economy,” he said.
In the past, the group pushed policy to strengthen the rural economy by supporting rural development programs in the farm bill, opposing escalating trade tensions, increasing access to capital for small businesses by cutting red tape, and improving out-of-date regulations.
On Monday, they called for the House to pass a series of small infrastructure bills while they wait for a major infrastructure package, claiming those are promises made to constituents in the 2018 election. The letter was signed by everyone in the caucus.
O’Halleran said urban legislators also need to understand how much they rely on their rural counterparts. “Our urban cores cannot survive without the infrastructure, water, food, and maintenance that goes on, and those are all (provided by) rural people.” He considers himself lucky and is glad the Blue Dogs still exist. “Without them, the amount of discussion around here even in both parties would be limited at best for rural America.”
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