By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writer
Somerset’s own Congress-man Harold “Hal” Rogers became one of the nation’s most influential individuals this past week when he was named head of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.It’s not a responsibility that he takes lightly.
“Obviously I’m very hum-bled by the trust in my leadership by my colleagues,” Rogers told the Common-wealth Journal in an exclusive interview. “I’m thrilled by the opportunity and challenged by the road ahead of us. It will be a tough, tough job.”The “job” is to decide how much money scores of federal programs receive in order to operate. The Appropriations Comm-ittee manages over $1 trillion in non-entitlement federal funds each year and has the power to cut some pretty prominent pursestrings by deciding who (or what) gets how much money via allocation.
“The Appropriations Committee is the chief overseer of (federal) agencies,” said Rogers. “When those agencies come before the committee, we will (consider) every dollar and make them justify every expenditure.”
Perhaps the most controversial among those is President Oba-ma’s oft-debated health care plan. Republicans have condemned the plan as costly and irres-ponsible, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, and Rogers has been as vocal an opponent as any.
One means of com-bating “ObamaCare” as it’s often called would be simply deny it funding. The Appropriations Com-mittee would have the ability to do this, freezing the program out of spending bills.
When asked if this was an approach Rogers was looking at taking, the Congressman quickly and eagerly replied in the affirmative.
“Absolutely, that’s a goal,” said Rogers. “We would hopefully just simply not fund the pieces of the law that require funding.”
For example, explained Rogers, “several thous-and” new IRS agents would be requested to discipline and run the system, “which would amount to several billions of dollars,” he said. “We hope to not fund that, among other things.”
Likewise, Rogers point-ed to the regulations that the Department of Health and Human Services would issue to run the health care program. “If we don’t fund it, they can’t write the regulations.”
Rogers is also targeting the Environmental Pro-tection Agency (EPA), specifically for actions that have affected Rogers’ Fifth District constituents on coal-mining country.
“I want to try to rein in the EPA and the over-extension of their auth-ority,” he said. “They’re issuing regulations with-out Congressional app-roval... (and have) practically shut down issuances for permits to coal mines. If this continues, it could shut down Kentucky’s coal mining industry, with thousands of jobs lost. That would be a major impact.”
Because the EPA spends taxpayer dollars, “every penny” has to be appropriated, noted Rogers. He hopes to lessen the organization’s power and “get it under control — it’s gone awry.”
“Prince of Pork” No More?
Of course, Rogers’ opponents made similar charges about the Congressman’s proclivity toward federal earmarks being out of control. In the budget year that ended Sept. 30, Rogers placed in the top 10 of U.S. Members in terms of earmark spending, secur-ing funds for various projects totaling just short of $100 million. Nationally, Rogers has been criticized for sending so much of this money back to his rural home region, which includes Pulaski County, though local residents champion Rogers’ pet projects like anti-drug outfit Operation UNITE and the environmental group PRIDE.
Republicans took con-trol of the House in November by pledging to curb federal spending and practice fiscal responsibility. But can a man who’s been called “the prince of pork” be expected to do that when given the keys to the vault?
Absolutely, suggests Rogers, who made a bold statement — he wants to cut earmarks not by a mere percentage, not even in half, but by “100 percent.”
“I have signed the moratorium on ear-marks, and have told our colleagues that I will be the enforcer of the moratorium” said Rogers, referring to a recent congressional ban backed by another prominent Kentuckian in Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Louisville, despite initial reservations.
“The nation’s fiscal house is in such dis-order,” he continued. “The (national) deficit is too huge, and growing by the day. With that in mind, I think we have to forgo some of the earmarks in which we’ve all participated in the past.”
Ultimately, the ear-marks make up a “fairly small percentage” of the federal budget, stated Rogers — less than one percent — but the impact could be less a matter of the bottom line and more one of philosophy. The moratorium serves as a “symbolic indication of our commitment to cut spending and get back to doing away with the deficit ... (and) bringing spending under control,” according to Rogers.
But what about all the local projects funded by Rogers’ earmarks? Rog-ers has been key in funding not only major organizations like UNITE and PRIDE but also the Wolf Creek Dam repair, the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tour-ism Development Found-ation, the National Institute for Hometown Security, the proposed Interstate 66 and other local road projects, and many other items both in Pulaski County and farther east.
Rogers acknowledged that a slasher’s approach to earmarks could impact the valued things he’s worked hard to put in place over the years, but believes that doesn’t mean his district will necessarily have to give them all up.
“They will be affected, but I’m so proud of these organizations we’ve put together that are work-ing so greatly to curb drug abuse and to educate our kids not to use drugs,” said Rogers, referring specifically to Operation UNITE. “(It) has been a fantastic organization, as is PRIDE. I’m very pleased with them, as with others.
“They have been beginning to get finan-cing from other sources,” he continued, naming state funds and private money contributions as sources from which the organizations have dra-wn and could continue to draw. Rogers also pointed to competitive federal grants — money that wouldn’t be guar-anteed, but would be available for worthy causes. Rogers feels like his projects are solid enough that they’d stand a great chance chal-lenging for those grants.
“I’m sure they will try to find some federal money,” said Rogers. “I don’t see them having much difficulty. ... Given their excellence, they will successfully compete.”
During the 2010 election season, eventual Senate seat winner Rand Paul of Kentucky fam-ously made comments against federal funding of agencies like UNITE, suggesting that home-grown law enforcement should play a bigger role in combating the drug problem. “I think I would rather see drug abuse and dependency treated and paid for at the local level,” Paul was quoted as saying during the campaign.
Rogers stated before the election that he and Paul “differ” on the issue of how UNITE should be funded and expressed disappointment with Paul’s view.
Now that he’s in charge of making sure the earmark moratorium is carried out, however, Rogers sounded more receptive to Paul’s ideas, saying they “definitely” represented a way UNITE could stay afloat.
“Local government has already been supportive” of UNITE, said Rogers, noting the authority given to UNITE agents by both city councils and county courts. “That’s a huge step forward. We’ll probably need more of the state’s help in the future. Law enforcement is a state and local responsibility.”
Rogers also said that PRIDE enjoys various city and county governments as key partners in their envir-onmental maintenance efforts and benefits from volunteer help as well — Rogers championed the presence of 33,000 individuals pitching for the organization’s last “Spring Clean-Up.”
All that said, “the local funds will be limited because our counties are not really rich,” warned Rogers.
Rogers has been on the Appropriations Comm-ittee since 1983, representing the bulk of his 30 years of Con-gressional service. He was unsuccessful in a 2005 bid to become the committee’s chair, but was the first chairman of the Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which played a major role in the nation’s protection following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Rogers has served on eight different subcommittees, a chairman or ranking member on three, and remains ranking member on the Homeland Sec-urity panel for a rare fourth time.
The term is a two-year one, as that’s the term for U.S. representatives, but traditionally Republicans hold a six-year limit for this leadership role, noted Rogers.
“If I do a halfway decent job, I hope they re-elect me for the next Congress,” said Rogers, who thanked everyone who has sent him congratulations and support over the years. “I represent some wonderful people.”
To get the chair-manship of the entire Appropriations Comm-ittee, Rogers had to beat out Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the current Republican ranking member, and Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia.
“The job I have covers the whole country, and hopefully we’ll be able to cut spending so that we’ll be able to ... help the economy get back in balance,” said Rogers. “In overseeing the executive branch, hopefully we can make them more efficient at solving people’s problems.”
Rogers says his four key goals as chairman are:
• to cut spending and bring it down to 2008 levels, before President Obama’s stimulus plan, for the coming year;
• oversight of Obama’s administration;
• change the culture in the Appropriations Committee, which Rogers said has considered itself “a club” and been “very secretive in the way it does business behind closed doors”; and
• focus on outreach and new methods of communication outside of the traditional media in order to get “instantaneous reaction” from the public and those with questions for the committee.
“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,” said Rogers following his being chosen as chairman. “There is no room for failure, our nation’s security depends on us getting this right and finding a new way forward.”