Six Democratic lobbyists with deep ties to the Blue Dog Coalition, including former Reps. Bud Cramer (Ala.) and Charlie Stenholm (Texas), unveiled Tuesday a new nonprofit called the Blue Dog Research Forum.
In a letter to Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), who co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition, Cramer and Stenholm wrote that they were establishing the organization to “ensure there will always be a forum in Washington to mark that middle ground when it comes to issues affecting the country’s fiscal health.”
The group’s goal is to be an incubator for policy ideas affecting the economy, such as energy, health care, tax policy, national defense and entitlements.
The research forum takes its name from the 54 fiscally conservative Democratic Members who have emerged as a powerful voting bloc on major legislation, but no current lawmaker has been involved in setting it up, according to Cramer, an original Blue Dog and president of the new research forum.
“They actually legally cannot dictate control or dominate what happens here,” Cramer said. “We can involve them. We can involve any Member in the policy forums we will carry forward, and we hope to be able to do that.”
However, as the lobbyists quietly set up the organization over the past several months, they have kept Blue Dog leadership generally informed. And Cramer, who now lobbies at Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, said the Members have been supportive so far.
In addition to Stenholm — who works at Olsson, Frank & Weeda — and Cramer, the board of directors for the new venture includes Jeff Murray of the C2 Group, Vickie Walling of Prime Policy Group, Stacey Alexander of Elmendorf Strategies and Libby Greer of Cauthen, Forbes & Williams.
Murray, who serves as the forum’s treasurer, said he expects to send out solicitations in the near future asking potential corporate, union and other donors for pledges worth about $10,000 each to participate.
The founders say they are sensitive to keeping the research forum in line with the Blue Dogs’ principles of fiscal conservatism. Other Member-affiliated organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation have drawn scrutiny over their fundraising techniques and ties to donors.
While political action committees associated with Congressional caucuses are subject to federal election contribution limits, nonprofit groups and charities are allowed to collect unlimited amounts of money from corporations, labor unions and trade associations.
“We’re going to make sure this doesn’t evolve into a social organization,” Murray said. “We’re going to keep our nose to the grindstone and make sure this is very policy-oriented.”
“This is not going to turn into a golf boondoggle,” he added.
The research forum’s main purpose will be to produce a series of roundtable discussions and programs, according to the board members.
The group plans to bring together journalists, association, union and think tank members along with Members of Congress to determine what issues are relevant in the near term. A larger forum will follow in the next couple of months. Transcripts of the forums will be available online to non-members of the group.
“A lot of ideas don’t get to see the light of day,” said Greer, former chief of staff to Blue Dog Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.). “We want to give them a place to breathe.”
Walling, the former chief of staff to leading Blue Dog Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), has worked closely with the Blue Dogs during her 36 years as a Congressional aide. She said the nonprofit comes as bipartisan cooperation hits an all-time low.
“We are really going to work hard to put together the kind of forums and information to be helpful to start finding the sweet spot or centrist approach,” Walling said.
There are several Member-affiliated nonprofits, including the CBC Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.
Ethics lawyers said setting up such a group brings a certain amount of public relations risk, giving fuel to critics — including political opponents — who charge that Members of Congress are too closely tied to lobbyists and corporate interests.
“It’s not the most popular thing,” said Covington & Burling lawyer Rob Kelner, a campaign finance and lobbying expert.
But the forum’s founders say the current political environment — where Blue Dogs are facing tough re-elections and partisan politics are dominating the political discussion — makes it the right time to start an organization that is focused on policy solutions for fiscal and national debt issues as well as energy and health care.
The research forum is not the first organization to attempt to be the incubator for centrist political ideas. In the mid-1980s, Al From started the Democratic Leadership Council as a place to come up with a set of ideas that would move the Democratic party to the middle.
“It’s pretty well-known the difficulties the Congress and the House are having because of the polarization,” Stenholm said of the reason he and his K Street colleagues decided to form the group. “It can be very helpful now to have experts from various entities that might be perceived as centrist to give them an opportunity to discuss those [ideas] and present those ideas to Congress.”
The foundation is set up as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. While its tax status means that contributions are not tax deductible for donors, Blue Dogs tend to be money magnets.
The Blue Dog political action committee has raised $1.8 million so far this election cycle. The PAC raised $2.6 million in the 2008 cycle.
The research forum will not lobby, but the tax status gives it more flexibility if the group decides to broaden its mission in the future, according to Murray.
And for now, the research forum will not have any staff.
“We want to slow grow this so that we are careful about where we go,” said Cramer, who was elected to a two-year term as president of the nonprofit.