The (Blue) Dog Days of Summer

Fifteen years later, Shuler is still D.C.'s biggest choke artist

Summer has come late to the Chesapeake Bay this year. After being held off by a steady stream of both passing and persistent thunderstorms, higher temperatures are finally asserting a claim on a season rightfully their own, and in doing so bringing the ambitions of the city's denizens back down to earth.

Arriving with the heat is the headache of health care reform, the centerpiece of which is a public insurance plan. Most, if not all, Republicans are against the idea because of its projected cost—estimated at between $1 and $1.6 trillion—and intrusion into the private insurance business. Meanwhile, President Obama and many Democrats say it's the only way to ensure fair play in a market notorious for refusing customers or denying them what they paid for. That this debate can be had at all is worth noting. For much of the year the storms on Wall Street drowned out people's reservations about spending, deficits, and the debt—and few could sustain them as politicians, academics, and voices in the media put forth metaphors of homes on fire and patients in cardiac arrest to describe the pressing need for immediate and decisive action.

But as the economy shows signs of gaining traction, slender and tenuous though they may be, the health care debate signals a shift from concern with the short term to anxiety for the long. And as politicians, businesses, and interests align around the issue, it's becoming clearer who holds the cards for Obama's domestic agenda.

The name Heath Shuler probably strikes a chord. (Whether that chord is harmonious or dissonant likely depends on your memory.) A standout quarterback at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s and later a fixture in the Knoxville real-estate scene, Shuler is now serving his second term as a Democratic representative from North Carolina's 11th district, just on the other side of the Smokies, where he grew up.

Shuler knows Washington. He served here more than a decade ago as the Redskins' quarterback after being chosen third in the 1994 NFL draft. For that job he's not particularly liked—he held out for a nearly $20 million contract before he would show up for training camp, and then once on the field never delivered what his college career portended. He was eventually traded away and suffered a series of injuries before retiring at the ripe old age of 26.

President Clinton later joked that he appreciated Shuler taking some of the heat off him in the city's second-most scrutinized role.

But in his latest showing in D.C., Shuler's making more friends. He's earned a leadership position as the whip, or vote counter, to a centrist coalition within the Democratic party known as the "Blue Dogs," which is proving to be an influential contingent.

The Blue Dogs originated in the mid- 1990s, partly as a strategy for peeling off votes from the slim Republican majority. They take their name from Cajun paintings that featured blue dogs and hung in the offices of two Louisiana representatives, where the founders would often meet.

Some members, including John Tanner, a Blue Dog serving Tennessee's 8th district, claim a linkage to the yellow dogs, those Southern Democratic loyalists who after the Civil War said they would vote for a mangy, yellowed dog before a Republican. The yellow dogs were "choked blue" by the extremes of both parties, the story goes, and this has the benefit of highlighting the group's moderate platform,

Today about 20 of the 52 Blue Dogs hail from the South, and four of Tennessee's five Democrats belong to the club. Many are social conservatives by national standards but social moderates by local standards. What unites them above all else is fiscal conservatism. In particular, they adhere to a notion that any new tax cut or entitlement spending be offset with cuts to other programs or tax increases, known as pay-as-you-go, or Paygo.

Paygo dates back to George H.W. Bush and the last period of high deficits in the early 1990s. The tax increase it mandated essentially cost Bush his re-election, but it also helped pave the way to the fiscal surplus enjoyed in the latter part of the decade. Such is the perversion of political incentives.

George W. Bush learned from his father's experience. In 2002 Paygo died a quiet death in the GOP-controlled House, leaving him to pass the insanely expensive Medicare prescription drug plan. This shored up support from vote-happy seniors which he desperately needed in 2004.

But now it's back. In June, President Obama called upon Congress to once again adopt Paygo, and shortly thereafter the House introduced legislation to do just that. This signals that Obama knows that Blue Dogs' opposition could kill his domestic agenda.

Last week the House passed landmark climate legislation by a vote of 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats and eight Republicans defecting to the opposite side. The Blue Dogs split fairly evenly; had they mobilized against it, the bill would have failed. Shuler said he voted for it "because it is consistent with two of my highest priorities, protecting God's creation and reducing our national debt"—a nice insight into the Blue Dog psyche.

Health care will likely be harder. Blue Dogs oppose a public option unless it is budget neutral, making it more politically thorny. There are compromises being whipped up, such as a grace period that would allow private insurance companies time to shape up before triggering a public plan.

Knowing who's holding the cards helps. Health care is a ticking time bomb sewn into the fabric of America's future. As we celebrate the nation's independence and what it cost, it's appropriate to consider what sacrifices must be made to regain the nation's financial freedom.