All Bark and No Bite:
The Blue Dog Coalition and the Myth of the Fiscally Responsible Democrat
October 4, 2010


The 15-year old Blue Dog Coalition is almost invariably characterized as the "fiscally conservative," "fiscally responsible," or "moderate" wing of the House Democratic Caucus - especially by the Blue Dogs themselves. A Google search of "fiscally conservative Blue Dog" returned more than 434,000 results, and the first text written on the Coalition's website refers to the Blue Dogs' "independent voices for fiscal responsibility and accountability." In the political media, in particular, the conventional wisdom is so ingrained that "Blue Dogs" operates as a short-hand term for "economically conservative Democrats."

But a detailed analysis of Blue Dogs' voting records suggests the conventional wisdom is wrong. On economic issues, the Blue Dogs are only marginally less extreme than their non-Blue Dog Democratic colleagues, and far more liberal than House Republicans. This fact, more easily obscured under Republican congressional majorities, has become more pronounced since the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2007.

Whatever substantive distinction the "Blue Dog Coalition" ever carried has all but dissolved into a crude and cynical branding mechanism. The Blue Dog Coalition exists not to help conservative Democrats influence policy, but to allow conventional Democrats to deceive the media and their constituents.


The Blue Dog Coalition was formed by Southern Democrats after the 1994 Republican mid-term landslide as a group of conservative but loyal Democrats - "yellow dogs" choked blue by their leaders' increasing liberalism. Unlike most congressional coalitions who seek to influence Congress through ever-larger numbers, the Blue Dogs conspicuously limit their membership every Congress.

The ostensible idea was to create space for moderate Democrats to distinguish themselves from a liberal Democratic Caucus that was increasingly out of touch with a right-of-center electorate. But whatever cooperation they initially offered the Newt Gingrich-led new Republican majority, over time, the Blue Dogs have drifted from that original stated mission.


By any objective measure, the Blue Dogs as a group are not fiscal moderates, let alone fiscal conservatives.

Since the formation of the Coalition in 1995, the Blue Dogs' economic voting record has consistently drifted leftward. According to the Annual Congressional Score Card of the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative economic watch dog organization, the Blue Dogs debuted in 1995 almost as advertised, earning an average score of 52 percent. As the chart below shows, the votes have gotten worse almost every year since,

Of particular note is the precipitous drop in 2007 when the Democrats retook control of the House for the first time since the Blue Dogs' founding. It was then that the Blue Dogs' influence ought to have been optimal. The Coalition's membership was larger than the Democrats' overall majority of 15 seats in the 110th Congress and 40 seats for most of the 111th. The Blue Dogs could have - and should have - been a moderating influence on Speaker Pelosi's economic agenda and President Obama's gargantuan spending increases.

No such luck.

On the biggest, defining votes since the Democrats took the House, the Blue Dogs have voted almost in lock-step with their party leaders.

Fannie & Freddie Bailout 100%
TARP 63%
2009 Stimulus 91%
Cash for Clunkers 85%
2009 Obama Budget 74%
Auto Bailout 73%
ObamaCare 54%

And with one leader in particular the Blue Dogs are more like lap dogs. Of the 62 votes cast by Speaker Pelosi during the current 111th Congress on economic issues, the Blue Dogs voted with her 80 percent of the time. Only two - Reps. Bobby Bright (AL-02) and Gene Taylor (MS-04) - have voted with Speaker Pelosi less than half the time, while three have voted with her every time.


If there is one tangible policy initiative responsible for the Blue Dogs' reputation for fiscal conservatism, it is PAYGO: "pay-as-you-go" rules that require the House to offset new spending and tax cuts with spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere in the budget.

Blue Dogs for years led the fight for PAYGO, vocal advocacy that helps explain the group's reputation for fiscal integrity.

When Democrats reclaimed Congress in 2007, they established PAYGO as a standing rule of the House, ostensibly ushering in a new era of fiscal responsibility. How, then, has the federal deficit exploded in the years since?

Two reasons. First, the PAYGO rule - which Democrats gave statutory force in 2010 - is almost meaningless as currently written. It pertains only to entitlement spending. Annual discretionary appropriations bills and emergency spending bills are exempt.

And second, the PAYGO rule provides big spenders an escape hatch: the rule can be waived with a simple majority vote in the House. And so, rather the submit to the actual rigors of fiscal restraint, House Democrats have consistently waived the PAYGO rules to ratchet up spending without the "required" offsets. This kind of cynicism would be tragic for the "fiscally conservative" Blue Dogs, except that they are overwhelmingly complicit in the charade.

Since 2007, House Democrats have waived or ignored PAYGO rules 26 times. Blue Dogs voted with them 86 percent of the time. Only one Blue Dog - Bright again - defended the integrity of the PAYGO system more than half the time.  Ten Blue Dogs voted to waive or ignore PAYGO every single time.


Finally, there is the matter of earmarks, special projects members of Congress drop into spending bills, usually without any oversight, directing federal funds to their districts and states. Of the 54 current Blue Dogs, 52 are enthusiastic earmarkers, including 8 appropriators. Only two, Walt Minnick (ID-01) and Jim Cooper (TN-05), refuse them.


The Blug Dog Coalition's nearly universal reputation for fiscal conservatism is wholly undeserved. They do not influence policy by voting as a bloc against spending excesses. They routinely betray the PAYGO principles on which their reputations rests. And they do not change the culture of spending in Congress by standing against earmarks.

The Blue Dog Coalition, in reality, is not a vehicle conservative Democrats use to influence policy, but an artificial brand conventional Democrats have created to help market themselves. This is the true purpose of the Blue Dogs' self-imposed membership limit - the exclusivity confers on each member an unearned aura of independence and fiscal credibility.

Their false reputation aside, Blue Dogs are barely distinguishable from all but the most extreme liberals in the House Democratic Caucus.





The individual votes that we used were: 

Bill Vote Year
ObamaCare #1 887 2009
ObamaCare #2 165 2010
Repeal Individual Mandate 362 2010
Cap and Trade 477 2009
Stimulus 70 2009
TARP #1 674 2008
TARP #2 681 2008
Obama Budget 192 2009
Cash for Clunkers 682 2009
Auto Bailout 690 2008
Fannie/Freddie Bailout 519 2008

The votes used to calculate how often the Blue Dogs voted with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on economic issues were:

RC# 2, 2009; RC#4, 2009; RC#8, 2009; RC#9, 2009, RC#16, 2009; RC#18, 2009; RC#27, 2009; RC#37, 2009; RC#38, 2009; RC#46, 2009; RC#50, 2009; RC#69, 2009, RC#70, 2009; RC#104, 2009; RC#117, 2009; RC#140, 2009; RC#169, 2009; RC#192, 2009; RC#216, 2009; RC#228, 2009; RC#314, 2009; RC#335, 2009; RC#348, 2009; RC#477, 2009; RC#553, 2009; RC#612, 2009; RC#719, 2009; RC#770, 2009; RC#887, 2009; RC#965, 2009; RC#988, 2009; RC#991, 2009; RC#46, 2010; RC#48, 2010; RC#64, 2010; RC#88, 2010; RC#90, 2010; RC#165, 2010; RC#167, 2010; RC#194, 2010; RC#277, 2010; RC#322, 2010; RC#323, 2010; RC#324, 2010; RC#325, 2010, RC#332, 2010; RC#336, 2010; RC#398, 2010; RC#413, 2010; RC#423, 2010; RC#428, 2010; RC#430, 2010; RC#431, 2010; RC#433, 2010; RC#463, 2010; RC#511, 2010; RC#513, 2010; RC#518, 2010; RC#539, 2010; RC#549, 2010; RC#550, 2010; RC#554, 2010.

The RePORK Card numbers that analyzed how the Blue Dogs voted on getting rid of earmarks can be viewed here.

The votes used to see how often Blue Dogs voted to waive or ignore PAYGO were drawn from two reports issued by the House Budget Committee Republicans (here and here).  The original Blue Dog report incorrectly listed 31 votes, which has now be updated to be 26 votes.  They are:

RC#425, 2007; RC#1009, 2007; RC#1183, 2007; RC#42, 2008; RC#346, 2008; RC#412, 2008; RC#432, 2008; RC#519, 2008; RC#634, 2008; RC#635, 2008; RC#660, 2008; 
RC#681, 2008; RC#683, 2008; RC#690, 2008; RC#50, 2009; RC#70, 2009; RC#348, 2009; RC#859, 2009; RC#909, 2009; RC#929, 2009; RC#985, 2009; RC#165, 2010; RC#413, 2010; RC#463, 2010; RC#474, 2010; RC#539, 2010.