November 19, 2009

November 19, 2009 | Commentary on

Four Measures to Remake America: House Democrats are Split on the Most Important Pieces of Legislation

The Pelosi-Reid Congress, it's clear, fancies itself among the most consequential Congresses ever.

In the House these last ten months, four votes stand out for the historians and political scientists to ponder and dissect -- the final votes on the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, the fiscal-year 2010 budget resolution, the cap-and-trade legislation, and, of course, health reform.

If signed into law, collectively these four measures would remake America. Arguably, none of our previous major public-policy upheavals -- not the New Deal of the 1930s or Great Society of the 1960s on the political left, nor the 1980s Reagan Revolution or the short-lived 1990s Republican Contract with America on the right -- would rival this one for the extent to which it would permanently alter the relationship between the federal government and ordinary Americans.


These bills call for new and unprecedented levels of taxation, spending, regulation, and debt (total federal debt, for example, would triple in the next decade alone); they would usher in an entitlement crisis measurably worse than even the most jaded budget experts previously thought possible; environmentally based trade protectionism in the form of carbon tariffs would undermine the post-World War II consensus that international trade is good and must be as free and open as possible; regulations on the production and use of energy would squeeze the budgets of American families and threaten the existence of millions of small businesses; and, finally, the federal welfare state and all its pathologies would extend far into the reaches of a formerly self-reliant middle class, and in so doing limit the ability of future generations to equal or exceed the achievements of previous ones.

Few lawmakers have cast so many important votes in such a short period of time. House Republicans have been virtually unanimous in their opposition to this agenda, but House Democrats have been divided in important ways.

One would expect, for example, that the members of the ├╝ber-liberal House Progressive Caucus would robustly embrace this agenda. And 75 of its members voted for all four of these measures; the four who cast any dissenting votes presumably did so because the proposal in question wasn't liberal enough. The story is roughly the same for the other two large, left-of-center member caucuses: the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The only Black Caucus member not to vote in lockstep for all four measures was Rep. Arthur Davis of Alabama, who opposed both the cap-and-trade and the health-reform bills (and who, perhaps coincidentally, is seeking statewide office). Members of the Hispanic Causes supported Pelosi across the board.

These members, of course, form the political and ideological base for Speaker Pelosi and President Obama in the House. So their near-unanimous embrace of this agenda comes as no surprise. But what about those members who are more centrist in their orientation, or who represent districts where the voters are more suspicious of Big Government initiatives?

First, let's look at the Blue Dogs.

The 52-member Blue Dog Coalition proudly touts its commitment to the principles of fiscal conservatism on its website. One icon simply states: "restoring fiscal responsibility to the federal government." The coalition, we learn on its history page, has been particularly active on "balancing the budget and ridding taxpayers of the burden the debt places on them" and "protecting that achievement from politically popular 'raids' on the budget."

For these reasons, the Blue Dogs should be the decisive middle bloc of votes on issues involving the size and scope of government. If they recoiled at some liberal scheme to increase spending, regulate business, or worsen deficits, they could join forces with House Republicans to stop virtually any bill dead in its tracks.

So what have these "fiscally conservative" lawmakers done on these four Big Government bills? In large part, signed on.

Speaker Pelosi persuaded 46 out of 52 Blue Dogs to support the $787 billion economic stimulus plan and 39 to line up behind the FY 2010 budget resolution. But then the going got rougher. A plurality gave the thumbs-down on the cap-and-trade bill (29 against and 23 in favor), and a somewhat smaller number rejected the Pelosi approach to health reform (24 against and 28 in support).

Only four Blue Dogs (Reps. Bobby Bright and Parker Griffith of Alabama, Walt Minnick of Idaho, and Gene Taylor of Mississippi) voted against all four measures. Seven others took the small-government position three times (Reps. John Barrow and Jim Marshall of Georgia, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Travis Childers of Mississippi, Jim Matheson of Utah, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, and Glenn Nye of Virginia). Each supported Pelosi in the mid-February vote on the economic-stimulus bill. Eleven others voted the limited-government way twice.

Perhaps most surprisingly, a total of 30 Blue Dogs tilted to the side of Big Government at least three out of four times, including Reps. Marion Berry of Arkansas, Allen Boyd of Florida, Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, and Ben Chandler of Kentucky.

That leaves 17 who voted for all four Big Government proposals. This group includes Reps. Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Baron Hill of Indiana, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, and Zack Space of Ohio.

I also examined the voting behavior of the 85 House Democrats who represent congressional districts that voted for either George W. Bush in 2004 or John McCain in 2008. With poll after poll confirming that Americans have turned against these Big Government initiatives, this trend should be even more pronounced in these swing districts.

Not surprisingly, virtually all of the Democratic votes cast against these four measures (100 out of 107 of the dissenting votes, to be precise) came from here. Eleven of these members voted against the Big Government agenda all or most of the time. Nineteen others (including eleven Blue Dogs) voted against two of the measures. But 24 sided with Pelosi all but once and 31 heeded her call every time.

Even as conservatives recoil at this agenda, they must grudgingly acknowledge the San Francisco speaker's ability to persuade her troops to line up behind a breathtakingly liberal legislative agenda.

Mike Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First Appeared in National Review Online