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COLUMN: Blue dogs' fiscal goals

As governments in the nation become ever more solidly Republican, many remaining Democrats are said to be applying for endangered species protection.

It's a far cry from the era when the party was so entrenched in state and national politics that its die-hard loyalists were described as "yellow dog Democrats": they would, so the story goes, vote for a yellow dog before they'd vote Republican.

Yellow dogs are few and far between these days, says Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry, a Democrat and one of the few farmers in Congress. But there is a growing coalition, now 37 strong, of "blue dogs" — conservative Democrats that are "yellow dogs who have been choked until they've turned blue" from trying to deal with extremist legislators in both parties.

The coalition, which meets weekly, was formed in the 104th Congress as a policy-oriented group to give a voice to moderate and conservative members in the House. It has carved a reputation as a serious player in the policy arena, promoting middle-ground, fiscally responsible positions to bridge the gap between ideological extremes. The blue dogs have been particularly active in fiscal issues, relentlessly pursuing a balanced budget and fending off those who would raid the budgets for other purposes.

A major concern for the blue dogs, Berry said at the annual conference of the Southern Crop Production Association, is finding ways and enlisting support for dealing with the country's burgeoning debt, further exacerbated by recent tax cuts.

"In the 2003 fiscal year just ended, we're told that the nation had a $375 billion deficit," he says. "What they didn't tell was that it didn't include money for the war in Iraq or other emergency spending, or that the government had borrowed another $600 billion."

Nor, Berry says, does the published deficit amount include "all the money stolen from 11 government trust funds — there's not a dime left in any of them." The real deficit last year, he says, "was closer to $650 billion." Government discretionary spending is a bit over $700 billion, he notes. "If we did away with every one of those programs, we could just barely balance the budget. That's how big our deficit is.

"Nobody is talking about it but the blue dogs. Nobody else is acknowledging the enormity of the situation. With the rosiest projections for the next 10 years, we could be spending as much as one-half of all federal income just to pay interest on the debt."

Under that scenario, to balance the budget over the decade, Berry says, "We'd have to reduce Social Security by 60 percent, cut defense spending by 73 percent, and cut most other programs by at least 40 percent. Just think what that would do to this nation. We now owe $6.8 trillion in a country with a gross domestic product a bit over $10 tillion. We owe more today, as a percentage of GDP, than Brazil."

The situation, Berry says, "has more potential to destroy our country than anything I've seen in my lifetime." That worry, he says, will keep him and the other blue dogs pushing for measures "to keep our fiscal house in order."


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