Steny Hoyer: Walking the Tightrope to Claim Middle Ground
Policy + Politics

Steny Hoyer: Walking the Tightrope to Claim Middle Ground

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Freshman House member Debbie Halvorson, D-Ill., is from a state where unemployment is still relatively high at over 10 percent, but her more conservative constituents are also concerned about the $1.4 trillion budget deficit and federal borrowing from China. Polls show her trailing her Republican challenger, Adam Kitzinger, an Air Force pilot.

That’s why House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., spent part of his Fourth of July break campaigning for Halvorson and other struggling incumbents.

“The public is rightfully concerned about the debt and the deficit and they understand they are not sustainable in the long term,” Hoyer told The Fiscal Times last week in a telephone interview from Chicago, near Halvorson’s district. “As soon as we get out of this slowdown, we need to focus on getting back fiscal responsibility.”

Hoyer, a political moderate with good relations among conservative “Blue Dog ” Democrats, long has been considered the quintessential inside politician, who was most effective working quietly in the background. But Hoyer has been stepping out more in recent months to enunciate Democratic policy on jobs, fiscal discipline and national security. Few in the House leadership are better at straddling the moderate-liberal divide than the affable Hoyer.

Flying with the Deficit Hawks
Hoyer says it was his fellow Democrats who pushed him to publicly raise concerns about the deficit now, even as the economy is showing only slight improvement. But it wasn’t a hard step for him to take. Hoyer said that many “Blue Dogs” complained that their constituents were demanding to know why their party leaders continued to spend so much money while the federal budget was soaked with red ink.

Hoyer, 71, has been giving high profile speeches and going around the country outlining a Democratic plan to rein in the deficit – once the economy recovers. That puts him on a somewhat different path than House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been emphasizing economic stimulus and further government funding of unemployment benefits to fight the recession. And it points out the two-pronged strategy of the congressional Democrats, as they try to hang on to as many congressional seats as possible in what is shaping up to be a GOP year.

“He [Hoyer] has always been the conservative’s yang to Pelosi’s liberal yin,” said University of Virginia politics professor Larry Sabato. “His group that he watches out for are the Blue Dogs – they are the ones on the line this November.”

Dramatic Duo: Hoyer and Pelosi
Hoyer acknowledges that he and Pelosi have a difference in “emphasis” if not in philosophy. “The speaker has been very supportive both of the short-term and long-term views,” he said, citing her support for a law to implement “pay-as-you-go” appropriations and a budget “enforcement” resolution, as well as her support for a presidentially appointed fiscal commission.

Both Pelosi and Hoyer have a role in this fall’s election: Hoyer playing to the moderate wing, Pelosi to the liberal faction. Emblematic of the challenges they face this year, the two engaged in heavy damage control early this week in response to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ comments about the possibility of a Republican takeover of the House due to the large number of seats in play. Hoyer conceded at a news conference Tuesday that it's "probably close," but he quickly added that just because there are a lot of seats in play does not mean "by any stretch of the imagination that I think we're going to lose the House. I don't think we are going to."

Hoyer and Pelosi have a long history between them, and it has not always been amicable. The two first got to know each other as college interns in the office of former Sen. Daniel Brewster, D-Md. Pelosi, (whose surname was D’Alesandro then and her father the mayor of Baltimore) answered the phones. Hoyer was a policy intern.

Hoyer won his first election to the House in 1981, and Pelosi followed in 1987, leading to a long-term rivalry as the two moved up the Democratic leadership. They ran against each other for House Democratic minority whip in 2001, and Pelosi beat Hoyer that year. When Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri stepped down as minority leader, Pelosi ran and won the seat while Hoyer was unanimously elected minority whip.

When Pelosi was elevated to House speaker after the Democrats regained control of the House in the 2006 election, she backed the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., for the majority leader’s position over Hoyer, but Hoyer prevailed. Now, after a period of adjustment, the two leaders work well together, and politically they balance each other nicely.

“The phenomenon of the situation that I see is that members who are from low unemployment areas are very concerned about the deficit,” Pelosi said during a recent debate on extending unemployment insurance. “Members who are from high unemployment areas are very concerned about the jobs.”

While Hoyer’s deficit reduction words may resonate with some voters, he is taking something of a risk as well, particularly in bringing up an eventual end to tax cuts. For example, Hoyer suggested in a speech last month that “as the House and Senate debate what to do with the expiring Bush tax cuts in the coming weeks, we need to have a serious discussion about … whether we can afford to permanently extend them before we have a real plan for long-term deficit reduction.”

Republicans pounced.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put out multiple press releases excoriating Hoyer for suggesting that the middle class shoulder a bigger tax burden, asking each candidate how they felt about it.

Halvorson, the freshman Democrat running for her political life, had to do a balancing act of her own, “applauding” Hoyer for bringing the subject up, but adding, “I’ve consistently heard from middle-income families in my district who are still struggling because of the economic crisis that a tax increase on their families right now would be devastating.”

Walking that tightrope is how Hoyer hopes to claim the middle ground for the Democrats. “I believe we have to have fiscal responsibility,” he said. “You’ll never solve the deficit if the economy doesn’t recover, and that requires deficit spending in the short term. What I’ve said in the longer term with reference to tax cuts is that we certainly need to continue the middle-class tax cuts, we ought to continue them, not indefinitely, not permanently. Let’s go two or four years and see where we are.”

The Line in the Sand: Deficit Reduction vs. Stimulus Spending
The Obama administration is split on the issue of deficits vs. stimulus, with political advisors taking note of the voters’ concern over deficits and economic advisers continuing to counsel spending to bolster the economy.

According to James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, it’s possible to talk about doing the two things at once, as long as the implementation comes one at a time. “Ideally you could do two things at once,” he said. “There’s no reason you couldn’t do sensible deficit policies right now, but not withdraw the stimulus too quickly. Ideally you could do policies that starting in 2014 or 2015 would start increasing revenues and reducing spending.”

“Hoyer has the right idea,” Horney said. “The question is how do you get there?”