Indiana’s Blue Dogs Run Roughshod Over Workers

Roger Bybee

Happier days: Then-Senator Barack Obama is greeted by Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh at a rally in October 2008 in Indianapolis.

The jobless in Indiana are doubly cursed.

They have been hammered by a 10.7 percent unemployment rate and 14.3 percent lack insurance. And they must suffer having three conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House (Baron Hill, Brad Ellsworth, and Joe Donnelly), along with the similarly conservative Democrat Evan Bayh in the Senate.

Having been elected in a strongly Republican state that went Democratic thanks to the liberal message and program of Barack Obama, you’d imagine that all of Indiana’s Democrats in Washington would be working overtime with Obama to re-ignite the economy and push through a national healthcare plan.

But you’d imagine wrong. The Blue Dogs from Indiana and elsewhere fought President Obama on the stimulus plan despite the desperate economic conditions in devastated factory towns like Gary, Muncie, Elkhart, and Anderson. Now the Blue Dogs are busy trying to re-shape health reform so that it’s more acceptable to for-profit insurers.

So what is labor doing about this callous obstructionism of the Blue Dogs?

According to labor expert and sociologist Peter Seybold, former director of the Labor Studies program at Indiana University, labor’s push for healthcare reform has largely followed predictable and routine lines to pressure the Blue Dogs.

They [the AFL-CIO] have held some rallies, but without a lot of mobilization,” Seybold reported. I think the Blue Dogs have probably gotten more pressure from Moveon​.org and Organizing for America [formerly the Obama for America campaign]. I’ve heard a lot more from them. The AFL-CIO has seemed to be focusing on lobbying in Washington.”

(I was unable to reach any top Indiana AFL-CIO leaders Tuesday, as they were attending President Obama’s speech near Elkhart.)

Meanwhile, the Blue Dogs and Bayh are displaying far more concern for insurance companies than the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Hoosier families lacking health insurance. Generally, here’s how the Blue Dogs line up on major components of healthcare reform:

—A surtax on the richest 1 percent in order to help fund healthcare reform: AGAINST. They are against this tax increase on the supposed basis of fiscal responsibility. Yet most of them voted for Bush’s tax cut of $1.35 trillion in 2001.

—A public Medicare-style option to discipline for-profit insurers on premium increases: AGAINST. The Blue Dogs see this as unfair competition for for-profit insurers who must charge more because they are hampered by about $400 billion in unnecessary administrative costs, promotion, underwriting, and profits.

A July 9 letter signed by 40 Blue Dogs (but not Brad Ellsworth) declared that a Medicare-like public option would negatively impact hospitals, doctors and patients.

—Reducing subsidies for moderate-income families in order to reduce health reform’s total cost: FOR. As David Rogers explains in Politi​co​.com, the Blue Dogs are working to trim the subsidies for working families while simultaneously pushing to weaken the public plan’s ability to hold down hospital and insurance costs:

[T]he new language from the House Energy and Commerce Committee could require an additional $770 a year — or three-quarters of Obama’s Making Work Pay” tax credit. For those closer to the poverty line, such as a family of four earning $44,000 to $55,000, the relative impact would be even greater.

Reducing the subsidies would help scale back the cost of the plan by almost $60 billion over 10 years — a major goal for the Blue Dogs. But the Congressional Budget Office estimates show that most — if not all — of these savings are effectively given away by the same moderates under pressure from local hospitals and Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans to blunt the public plan option.

Part of the Blue Dogs’ motivation may be attributed to the vast contributions they have attracted from medical interests, who are spending an additional $1.3 million a day on lobbying. The Washington Post reported:

The [Blue Dog] group has set a record pace for fundraising this year through its political action committee, surpassing other congressional leadership PACs in collecting more than $1.1 million through June … More than half the money came from the healthcare, insurance and financial services industries.

Moreover, Sen. Bayh’s wife Susan, a former Lily pharmaceutical executive, received $2.1 million over the last several years for serving on the boards of health-related firms like WellPoint, the nation’s largest insurer, based in Indianapolis.

WellPoint [alone] accounted for the biggest single source of Susan Bayh’s board income, paying her $976,000 in cash, stock options and stock awards from 2006 to 2008,” according to Equilar, a California-based executive-compensation research company.

But there’s another vital element to explaining the Blue Dog’s cynical conduct: They vote like Southern Democrats who can brazenly serve local elites while ignoring the miniscule power of union in the South, a former Clinton aide and political scientist insightfully noted in Politco late last week:

I have thought a lot over the last few days about how the Southern Democrats’ relationship to local elites is different than that of other Democrats. I did study the votes on the 93 budget and found that a tiny number of people in their districts having a tax increase was enough to throw them overboard. I think the weakness of unions in those states plays a big part, plus right-wing radio is omnipresent.

However, Indiana is not a Southern state, and the three Blue Doggies shouldn’t be able to treat working people like a fire hydrant. Indiana has rich traditions of union militancy that Victor Reuther movingly depicted in The Brothers Reuther. The union spirit still runs deep, despite the recent shocks of de-industrialization, and organized labor’s presence is still highly visible in many communities.

After watching Bayh and the Indiana Blue Dogs flouncing around like the pet poodles of WellPoint, Blue Cross and other corporate masters, it is surely high time for the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to activate labor at the local level to put leashes on these miserable mutts.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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