Rep. Harold Rogers is hardly emblematic of the resurgent Republicans’ crusade to shrink government and crack down on earmarks and other special interest spending by Congress. For years, the courtly, white maned lawmaker was so skilled at larding up federal spending bills to benefit his eastern Kentucky district that he was dubbed “The Prince of Pork.”
Rogers snared $52 million for a National Center for Hometown Security, $17 million for the small airport in his native Somerset, Ky., that carries minimal traffic, and funding for the Hal Rogers Parkway. This year, his largesse included a $5 million earmark for conservation groups that work with endangered wild cats, one of which employs his daughter.
So it came as something of a surprise when the incoming House Republican leadership -- which is committed to a two-year moratorium on earmarks and other special interest spending -- chose Rogers to become the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee . Fiscal conservatives were outraged by the choice, and some liberal Democrats complained that Republicans were hypocritical in advocating major spending cuts while elevating a pork-barrel impresario to the Appropriations chairmanship. An aide to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, dispatched a press release entitled “House GOP Flunks First Test by Backing Pork Prince.”
Since then, Rogers has talked the talk of taking a tight-fisted approach to federal spending. “We are facing unprecedented times and the American people are giving us a unique opportunity to start reining in government and getting our economy back on track,” Rogers said in a statement. “My Republican colleagues and I are listening and we will fight to rein in spending, implement rigorous oversight and work together to change the culture on Capitol Hill.”
Rogers said he was committed to incoming Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s goal of scaling back government spending to the pre-stimulus, 2008 levels, which will be a tough chore but one that’s doable. “I’m in favor of the earmark moratorium. And I am a tough (government) overseer,” Rogers said in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this month. He also has promised to overhaul the committee and cut its staff by 20 percent.
Fiscal conservatives who strongly criticized Rogers now say they are willing to cut him a little slack – while they watch closely.
“We’ve had our differences with him in the past on earmarks and other spending,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog group. “But we’ll work with him as long as he’ll work with us.”
Andrew Moylan, director of government affairs for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), an independent group that advocates lower taxes and smaller government, said: “I think a lot of people were disappointed in his selection, and I think that’s a reflection of the fact that he’s had a mixed record. He’s a traditional appropriator.”
In the wake of the mid-term elections in which Republicans and their anti-spending Tea Party allies scored major victories, Rogers is not the only free-wheeling spender who has seen the light. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, another champion of earmarks from Kentucky, reluctantly endorsed the two-year moratorium on earmarks lasts month. Late last week, McConnell helped torpedo a $1.2 trillion Senate spending bill for 2011 that was filled with nearly 7,000 line-item projects for individual lawmakers. – including many that McConnell had inserted.
McConnell requested $112 million worth of earmarks in the legislation according to estimates from Taxpayers for Common Sense. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would have been the single largest beneficiary of the bill, with more than $500 million in co-sponsored earmarks, but he also walked away from it.
"Make no mistake, I know the good that has come from the projects I have helped support throughout my state. I don't apologize for them," McConnell said in a floor speech. "But there is simply no doubt that the abuse of this practice has caused Americans to view it as a symbol of the waste and the out-of-control spending that every Republican in Washington is determined to fight. And unless people like me show the American people that we're willing to follow through on small or even symbolic things, we risk losing them on our broader efforts to cut spending and rein in government."
Like McConnell, Rogers did his best to assure his Republican colleagues that he got the anti-spending message of November’s elections.
“I am ready to get to work so that together we can move our country forward. We are facing unprecedented times and the American people are giving us a unique opportunity to start reining in government and getting our economy on track,” Rogers said after the Republican Conference voted to make him chairman. “There is no room for failure. Our nation’s security depends on us getting this right and finding a new way forward.”
With the Republicans back in power in the House, Rogers will succeed Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Elected in the Reagan landslide of 1980, the 72-year-old Rogers grew up in his eastern Kentucky district and practiced law before buying a bank and entering politics. He served as a prosecutor and battled his way through an 11-candidate field to win the GOP nomination for the congressional seat.
His seniority played to his favor during the race for a new Appropriations chairman, along with the fact that Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., needed a waiver from House GOP term limit rules to continue. Lewis defeated Rogers in a similar battle for the chairmanship in 2004.
Although generally conservative on most issues, Rogers has supported many public improvements during his time in Congress in hopes of alleviating the poverty and economic struggles in his mountainous eastern Kentucky district where coal mining is a major industry.
When Republicans were last in control of Congress, until 2006, Rogers supported zeroing out many domestic programs, except those important to his district – the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Legal Services Corporation. After he became chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee in 2001, Kentucky became the fourth largest state in transportation per capita.
Moylan of the NTU noted that when Rogers chaired the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, he was adept at setting things up “so that the answer you came to was Somerset, Ky.,” when the question was where to locate facilities or spend money. “We want to make sure we don’t just eliminate earmarks and then do it through the back door,” Moylan said.
Rogers’ record and reputation prompted the conservative Club for Growth to urge Republicans to bypass Rogers and choose Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., as chairman. “If fiscal conservatives want to get control of federal spending, we must first get control of the Appropriations Committee. And Jack Kingston gives us the best chance to accomplish that goal,” the Club said in a statement endorsing his candidacy.
When Rogers won instead, the move was lambasted by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who told a caller on a recent show that, “You didn't vote for the king of pork or earmarks to be in charge of appropriation. Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gleefully weighed in. A spokesman said in a statement that “American families heard a lot of Republican rhetoric about fiscal responsibility and reining in debt this election season, but now they’re faced with the choice of the ‘Prince of Pork’ to head their appropriations process. Representative Rogers’ record on fiscal responsibility looks like a shopping spree – no splurge left behind.”
Moylan said Rogers may find it difficult to slip back into his old ways with nearly 90 new Republicans who are determined to cut spending watch his every step. Moreover, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a long-time foe of earmarks, will be joining the Appropriations Committee, and is certain to be a tough spending watchdog.
Flake proposed creating a full-time investigative subcommittee, but Rogers rejected the idea, instead opting for the idea of creating task forces to study specific issues. “I believe that every subcommittee needs to incorporate a rigorous oversight component into their everyday functions,” he said in a statement.