Hal Rogers, Earmark King, Goes on a Pork-free Diet
Policy + Politics

Hal Rogers, Earmark King, Goes on a Pork-free Diet

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The longtime “Prince of Pork”  has now miraculously become the “Count of Cuts.”

Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers, R-Ky., was once known for his zest for pork-barrel spending as a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, which holds the purse strings of government spending. But Rogers desperately wanted to assume the chair of the committee after the Republicans won control of the House last November, which meant he would have to embrace the Tea Party gospel of cutting spending and eschewing special interest “earmarks.” In other words, he would have to go from eating the bacon to sipping the tea.

For months the mild-mannered, grandfatherly Rogers has found himself in an unaccustomed position of hard-nosed chief budget-cutter. And by all accounts, he’s succeeding, mostly because he has to.

“It’s made the job a lot more difficult, but I assured everyone there was a moratorium on earmarks and I would be the enforcer,” Rogers said in a recent interview with The Fiscal Times just off the House floor. “It’s worked perfectly. We’ve not had a single earmark yet in all these bills.”

New conservative members of the House were rightly skeptical that Rogers, 73, a lawyer, could change his stripes after more than 30 years in Congress. They petitioned Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to find someone else to head the committee, but Boehner decided to stick with the veteran Kentucky lawmaker, as long as he toed the line of Republican fiscal discipline. “It was the policy of our conference and I agreed with the conference,” Rogers said. “There are no earmarks, either soft or hard.”

House GOP: “Hold the Pork”
Unlike the broader appropriations process in which Congress grants an annual lump sum to a federal agency to operate, earmarks direct a specified amount of money from an agency’s budget to be spent on a particular project – one that usually benefits a congressman’s district or a business or special interest. In the past, billions of dollars have been allocated through these special earmarks, usually approved secretly and with no public accountability.

Following in the footsteps of their Senate counterparts, House Republicans last November unanimously adopted an earmark ban for the 112th Congress. Freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., offered the ban, which was praised by GOP leadership.

“Earmarks have become symbolic of congressional excess,”  said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the most vocal critics of earmarks. “We’re not going to be able to balance the budget and reduce the debt by simply eliminating earmarks, but it’s a huge signal to taxpayers that Republicans are serious about getting the federal government back on solid fiscal ground.”

But no longer having the leverage of approving or rejecting members’ requests for earmarks makes it harder to wield the chairman’s gavel, Rogers admits. And most other House members interviewed about the Appropriations Committee chairmanship said they were happy to leave it to Rogers because cutting the budget is not nearly as much fun as handing out money.

“I was in this position for six years and I’m really glad he has the job,” said Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, R-Fla., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who will be making cuts of his own. “I had 9/11 to deal with and Hal has this great budget dilemma. Well, I’m happy that he’s chairman.”

Under the debt ceiling compromise signed by President Obama last week, the House and Senate will be tasked with immediately cutting spending totaling $917 billion for the coming decade, with half coming from defense and national security and half from domestic programs.

Rogers said that the nine of the 12 appropriations bills that have already passed his committee will be modified slightly by the deal, with the main cuts coming in the other bills, particularly defense. 

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood
Rogers represents the 5th congressional district in mountainous eastern Kentucky, a mixture of heavily Republican and Democratic pockets that have long been hungry for federal aid. The need for pork is great in this overwhelmingly rural area, where jobs are hard to come by and residents have a median income of $27,324.

The congressman has long found it difficult to maintain a conservative record on spending issues, according to the Almanac of American Politics. In recent years, Rogers obtained 135 earmarks worth $246 million for his district, ABC News reported. He has put tens of millions into his hometown of Somerset, Ky., which is sometimes referred to as “Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood” and which includes the “Hal Rogers Parkway.” But after the Republican takeover of the House last year, he had to change his ways in order to finally take the reins of Appropriations. Apart from towing the line on earmarks and wielding a scalpel on some spending bills, Rogers worked aggressively to help Boehner line up Republican support for the Speaker’s plan for  raising the debt ceiling, which faced a rebellion from some of the more conservative House Republicans. Rogers spent hours ushering Republican members into the Speaker’s officer to persuade them to vote with Boehner.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the highest ranking Democrat on the Appropriations panel, said the earmark ban has to be “as hard for [Rogers] as it is for me,” if there is something in their district they want to fund. But the earmark ban has stuck.

Dicks said that while he would love the Democrats to regain the majority so that he could chair the committee, he’s sympathetic to Rogers’ predicament of trying to shoehorn all the pressing spending demands into the shrinking pot of available funds or allocations. “I would not want to be chairman and have his allocations to deal with,” Dicks said. “The allocations are too low. They will not create jobs. They will lose jobs.”

Freshman Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., a Tea Party-backed member who prides himself on being the most conservative man in any room, viewed his appointment to the Appropriations Committee with skepticism. He said he was unsure that there would be a “direct effort” to reduce spending. Rogers has won him over, mostly.

“He has taken the various limitations we’re demanding on spending and [upheld] that,” Graves said. “I would like to see us go further. We’ve had a lot of amendments on the floor on [cutting] spending. Most of them have been defeated.”

Rogers has decided to abide by open rules and almost unlimited debate. He lets members offer multitudes of amendments in committee and on the floor, but almost none of them is successful. That’s vintage Rogers, according to former Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., a former chairman of Appropriations and now a lobbyist.

“Hal Rogers is a great poker player,” Livingston said, recalling that in the early 1980s, when he was an assistant House minority whip, he had a hard time pinning Rogers down. “The Kentucky guys in general were the hardest guys to whip. Maybe it’s the Bourbon they drink. Hal is very shrewd and is not going to commit to the process until the last second.”