House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers
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HH: I am talking to the incoming new leadership of the House of Representatives, and including the chairmen of the most powerful committees, and that would certainly be my next guest. Congressman Hal Rogers from Kentucky is taking over perhaps the most important committee in all of the Congress. It’s the committee on Appropriations in the House of Representatives. Congressman, Mr. Chairman Rogers, welcome to the program, great to have you on.
HR: Thank you very much, Hugh, good to be with you.
HH: I like to start these hours with a little biography. Can you tell the audience who’s not from Kentucky a little bit about Hal Rogers, where you were born, growing up, and how long you’ve been in the Congress?
HR: Well, I was born in Wayne County, Kentucky. I’m 72 years of age. I’m a lawyer, went to the University of Kentucky, both the undergrad and law school, elected first as a D.A. in Kentucky where I served eleven years prosecuting in two counties, then on to Congress in 1981. I came in with President Ronald Reagan. We had a class of 54 freshmen Republicans. We became known as the Reaganauts, because we voted for his programs to a person, and actually to our detriment, because we lost half our class in ’82, because we had voted for those cuts and disciplines that President Reagan brought into play. I’ve served on the Appropriations committee since ’83. I’ve chaired three of its subcommittees. I’ve served on eight of the twelve subcommittees, and of course, just elected as incoming chairman.
HH: Now you must be excited in one respect. On the other hand, the spotlight has never been greater on Appropriations than it is at this moment. How do you feel about the task ahead of you?
HR: Well, I have…it’s good news and bad news. I’m thrilled and elated and honored at the title, but we’ve got the heaviest chore any appropriators, any Appropriations committee has ever had. The nation’s fiscal crisis is the worst we’ve seen. The hole is the deepest we’ve ever been in. And the pressure is on this committee to rein in discretionary spending, which we are determined to do. And so it’ll be a tough chore. I have no misgivings about that.
HH: I want to go right to the heart of one of the most controversial issues, which is earmarks. And here’s the problem. Nobody knows what that means. I mean, everyone knows when they see one. It’s sort of like Justice Potter Stewart about pornography. They know the Bridge To Nowhere’s an earmark.
HH: But then there’s lots of things that they don’t think of as earmarks, like hey, we need ten destroyers, get them built. What is your definition of an earmark, Chairman Rogers, and how are you going to police the House’s commitment not to have them this Congress?
HR: Well, no one’s ever been able to define an earmark. I can tell you perhaps what it’s not, but no one, including the present members of Congress, can tell you, can define what an earmark is. But there’s no doubt they’ve been abused. And we are going to rein them in. In fact, we’re going to prohibit them. I voted for the moratorium that the Republicans in the House voted, and now I will be enforcing that moratorium. There will be no earmarks. We’ve got a fiscal crisis on our hands, a national fiscal crisis, and we have to forego local spending. We have to forego everything else, and focus on the nation’s problem. And that’s what I’ll be doing.
HH: Now how is that process…you know, obviously we’ve had Congressman Paul Ryan on the program. We know the budget architecture. He passes that budget off to you, or at least what the House budget is, I don’t know if it’s ever going to get through the Senate. And then what do you do after that? Do you cut and paste it, and distribute it out to your subcommittee chairmen and say live within this?
HR: Yeah, the procedure under…our procedure is the Budget committee of the House goes through their hearings, it goes on for weeks, and then they will pass, hopefully, a budget resolution that sets the big number for spending for the whole government. That number is then given to the Appropriations committee, and we then disburse that overall spending number amongst the twelve subcommittees of Appropriations that would appropriate funds for different sections of the government. For example, Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee obviously appropriating funds for those particular agencies. My office will distribute to that subcommittee the dollar amount that they are authorized to appropriate for. And then they will hold their hearings. They will bring up all of the agencies within those departments and agencies, and they will interrogate them in public open hearings, asking about every penny that’s to be spent, and what has been done in the past, and calling them on the carpet. And I’m going to expect tough, tough oversight hearings. Hundreds of them.
HH: Wow. Now what about timing? Will these bills finally get done in an efficient and appropriate fashion? No other business in the United States can run according to the calendar of the House of Representatives, Chairman Rogers. What’s your commitment there?
HR: Well, in the past two years, we’ve practically had no procedure. It’s been an absolute mess. We’ve not…the Appropriations committee has met two times in the last year.
HR: Just two times. All of the big spending bills, the bailouts, the stimulus packages, all of those enormous bills were drafted in the Speaker’s office, and then delegated down to the whole Congress, bypassing the Appropriations committee. So the process is absolutely broken. My aim is to restore regular order. The Budget committee does their thing, gives us the big number. We divide it amongst twelve subcommittees, we have twelve series of hearings, eventually bringing each bill to the floor of the House for open amendments, open to anybody to amend any way they see fit to strike funding, to add funding, whatever, and then pass that along to the Senate, have conference with the Senate, send it to the President for signature. So in the past two years, we’ve done these enormous omnibus bills, because they simply could not pass, did not pass, individual bills on the House floor. It’s the first time we’ve ever not passed a budget resolution this past year. It’s the first time to my recollection where we have not passed a single appropriations bills on the floor of the House, except these big omnibus bills. But none of the twelve bills made it to the floor and went through the regular process. That’s wrong, and we’re going to correct that.
HH: Now obviously as we look forward to what may be a showdown with the Senate, and certainly with the President, people don’t want the key parts of the government to be shut down. They don’t want defense and homeland security ever to be shut down. Is it possible to get those appropriations bills done first, so that if we do run into loggerheads, ala 1995-96, Chairman Rogers, that at least the critical functions of the government will continue?
HR: Well, we will see to it that defense and homeland security, and those vitally important spending bills get priority. However, the order in which those bills come out of committee and onto the floor, that’s subject to change from time to time. So I can’t tell you exactly how that order will be.
HH: Are you willing to see parts of the government shut down if necessary to impose some fiscal restraint on the United States?
HR: Well, we don’t want to shut down the government. We’ve got to have the government. But I don’t think we need to shut down the government to get discipline in the process. We’ve got leadership now on our side who is determined. You’ve got a chairman of the Appropriations committee who is determined to pass these bills, and to prevent any possibility of a shutdown.
HH: But if the President wants to have a confrontation, and he may, he might think it’s good politics to put this in. Are we going to flinch, do you think?
HR: Well, I can’t imagine that he would see any political or other benefit to shutting the government down, especially if he’s doing it to protect this, for example, this big omnibus bill chocked full of thousands of earmarks of billions of dollars. I can’t imagine that he would risk shutting the government down in order to save that kind of a bill.
HH: Now Chairman Rogers, how are you going to exercise that discipline? Obviously, you can always go public and throw spotlights. But are you that kind of a chairman? Or are you more of a hey, subcommittee chairman X, come and let’s reason together, you can’t do what you’re proposing to do?
HR: Well, I’m going to be a pretty tough taskmaster on these subcommittees, and I’ve told them so as recently as yesterday, that I expect business, and I expect tough oversight hearings, and I expect them to produce bills that we can pass on the floor, and ship to the Senate. So I’m going to be pretty tough on that. As I told you, I’m an old D.A. And you know, we’re not going to put up with too much rancor. – – – –
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HH: Chairman Rogers, the Obamacare debate has been raging for a year. And a lot of people don’t realize this, but your committee is going to be Ground Zero for the incremental rollback of Obamacare, if indeed it’s possible. Where’s that going to happen, who’s your partner, who’s running the subcommittee on this, and what do you expect is the minimum we can get done in cutting back Obamacare this year?
HR: Well, that’s one of my major aims, of course, is to stop this flawed legislation passed by the Democrat Congress. And the funding for Obamacare comes from various different places in different subcommittees. So we will be tackling those expenditures across the board, rooting out where they are, and then trying to find a way to unfund them, or not fund them. Just for example, they’re requesting like 6,500, I think it is, IRS agents, new ones, to enforce Obamacare. Well, that’s about $12 billion dollars that I’m going to try to cancel out as early as possible. So we will spend the good part of the year, if not all the year, finding where we can defund or unfund Obamacare as it progresses.
HH: Now how about on the Medicare doc side, on the doc fixes that have been going through. That all comes through Appropriations as well. How are you going to approach that? You know, it’s such a difficult, thorny issue, because there are doctors that have got get paid. At the same time, Obamacare didn’t provide for this.
HR: Well, the doc fix was already passed, that’s been a couple of weeks ago, well back in November, I think it was.
HH: Sure. But going forward, Medicare…
HR: And Hugh, that does not go through Appropriations.
HR: That is another committee.
HH: Okay, in terms of the overall Medicare problem that we’re looking at, Medicare and Medicaid, is that something that can be fixed independent of the overhaul of Obamacare?
HR: No, that…well, it’s a part of Obamacare, but it’s not something that is funded through our committee. That is one of the entitlement programs. Both of them are entitlement programs. It’s not discretionary spending. We don’t have…Appropriations does not have control over Medicare and Medicaid.
HH: Okay, but you do have control, for example, over Health and Human Services. And there are these riders that you can pass, Congress shall make no law riding regulations on global warming, riding regulations on Obamacare. Do you expect to be wielding that power in the way, say, it was wielded…you came to Congress in ’81. I joined the Reagan administration in ’83. And all I dealt with as a young lawyer and then a general counsel was with these Appropriations riders. How about with our turn?
HR: Well, you’re exactly right. This administration has gone overboard in attempting to extend their power beyond what the law provides. And I think immediately of EPA.
HR: …who are trying to put in practice by regulations what they could not pass through the Congress. And it exceeds their Constitutional power, and we will call them to task, and will do it in a vigorous, forceful way. But they’re trampling on the liberty of people. They’re trampling on the Constitution. And they’re trampling on the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branch. And we’re going to call their hand on it.
HH: Let’s focus on that. That’s further down my list, but we’ll jump up there. Obviously, they’re attempting to impose cap and tax via regulatory pushes there. Do you expect the Appropriations committee is going to cut their funds off for that kind of mischief?
HR: We’re going to vigorously oppose their extension of power beyond what the Constitution and the law provides.
HH: All right. How about NPR and Public Broadcasting generally, Chairman Rogers? How’s that going to fair in your committee?
HR: Well, I’m, you know, I’m speaking as the chairman, and we’ve got these twelve subcommittee chairs who have jurisdiction over different pieces of the government, including public radio. And I’ve not appointed the subcommittee chairman yet, and I don’t want to get ahead of them. I want to confer with them, and be sure that they and myself are on the same wavelength.
HH: Generally speaking, not obviously committing the committee or the subcommittee to it, what’s Hal Rogers’ opinion of the government spending money on public broadcasting?
HR: Well, I’ve got mixed feelings I guess like most people. I do not like the liberal bent that they generally put out. I think, I’m an old broadcaster myself. I worked, Hugh, here in radio during college, and before and after college. So I’m a radio nut from the private sector long ago. So I obviously have a great deal of regard for privately owned broadcasting.
HH: You know, I used to be a PBS employee for ten years, so, so do I. But I also know how badly adrift the whole Corporation for Public Broadcasting is. And whoever the chairman is, that’s going to be an interesting thing. Do you get involved in the subcommittees as they consider those sorts of particular appropriations, Hal Rogers?
HR: I’m a member of each subcommittee, and I will attend as many of their hearings as I can. But you know, at any one time, you may have five or six subcommittees holding simultaneous hearings. So I’ll be able to go, I’m going to go to as many as I can, knowing that I can’t make them all. But I will pick where I go based on the topic that’s under consideration, and my strong feelings or weak feelings about whatever it is.
HH: Before we go to break, the Federal Communications Commission, obviously, as one radio guy to another radio guy, they come and mess around in our backyard all the time. And the Fairness Doctrine comes around. Do you expect any funding for Fairness Doctrine-related stuff to ever come through your committee?
HR: Well, our goal is to get to the bottom of NPR’s problems, and then make decisions. But I don’t see any change, I don’t foresee any change in the way things are right now.
HH: That’s good news. I’ll be right back with Chairman Hal Rogers. He’s from the great state of Kentucky. We’ll find out whether or not he is going to appropriate money to the Cleveland Browns because Tim Couch came and took all of our money when he was…you know that is a University of Kentucky graduate, Congressman Rogers. That’s…
HR: Well, Tim Couch is from my district, and a personal friend.
HH: Oh, he’s a great man. He just, I want my bonus money back. I think that we ought to be able to give that to Colt McCoy. And since you’re a Kentucky guy, I think you ought to be willing to come up with that kind of money. By the way, is the University of Kentucky in your district as well?
HR: No. No, it’s just north.
HH: So do you know anything about basketball?
HH: (laughing) We’ll be right back.
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HH: Congressman Rogers, GM got a whole bunch of America’s money. They haven’t paid it all back yet. Will anything like that happen again in a committee that you’re chairing?
HH: And why should…was that a good idea when it happened?
HR: I don’t think so. You know, I can’t…there’s just no place, I don’t think, in our democracy for the federal government to own a big slice of a private company that’s in business to make money. I know it was a difficult time, but I just don’t think that was the right thing to do.
HH: So what role does Appropriations have in getting that money back, if any?
HR: We, I don’t think, will have anything to do with that. That was a matter that came from outside our committee, so that’s not my work.
HH: Gosh, the last two years…
HR: But we will be looking at it very closely.
HH: The last two years have been an utter nightmare for understanding accountability, haven’t they?
HR: Yes. Absolutely.
HH: Has Speaker Boehner committed to you that that is just going to change?
HR: That what will change?
HH: The idea of the Speaker running the House in a way that we cannot find who’s responsible. I mean, Nancy Pelosi, basically, it was her House of Representatives for the last two years.
HR: Absolutely. All the bills were drafted in her office. She dictated them to Chairman Obey of Appropriations. And they bypassed the committee, went directly to the floor. We didn’t have hearings, we weren’t able to make amendments. It was just take it or leave it. Boehner, Speaker-to-be Boehner, has assured me that the bills will be written in committee and not in his office. And he is a former chairman of one of the committees in the House, and so he knows how committees should operate. And he did a great job, by the way, Education and Labor. So we’ve got a speaker that came up from the House who was a committee chairman, who suffered, like the rest of us, through this Nancy Pelosi administration of the House, and is determined not to repeat those errors.
HH: Now I want to go a little inside baseball with you. Your friend and mine, Ron Packard…
HH: …long time member of Congress.
HR: Great guy.
HH: …and appropriator for a long time.
HH: …sat on Interior. And he and I both do Endangered Species stuff. We know about the Endangered Species stuff. And as you know that is one of the most abused laws in the land. And Appropriations has a lot to do with that. Is it, can we expect some reform of some of these departments like Interior, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Defense with the Army Corps of Engineers, where they’re taking money out of your committee, and they’re using it for just wild stuff?
HR: Well, like I said, Hugh, we will be conducting vigorous, in-depth, long oversight into every agency, every department. And we will be rooting out flawed spending, waste, fraud and abuse, and we will dig into all aspects. And I’m going to ride herd on these subcommittee chairmen to be sure they are as vigorous as they can be, and thorough in seeking out the trampling of Americans’ rights, and trampling on the Constitution. That will be uppermost in my mind.
HH: That’s very interesting, and I’d like to expand on that a little bit. When you say looking into the rights of Americans, are you talking about their property rights and how the federal government’s stepping on them in many places?
HR: No, no, no. I’m talking about money.
HH: Okay. Can you expand on it for us?
HR: Well, every agency, all the personnel of the federal government, part of every budget is the personnel costs. We will be looking at how every dollar is spent on personnel, and particularly those agencies that regulate, we will be looking at every penny they spend. And if we see that they’re over-exceeding their bounds, we will withhold the money.
HH: Oh, very good.
HR: And the power of the purse in the Constitution is very important.
HH: In terms of the idea that all spending bills have to originate with the House, I get e-mails every week, almost, saying when did the House stop being in charge of the purse? When did the Senate take over? Is that of concern to you, Congressman Rogers?
HR: Obviously it is. We’re very protective of that provision in the Constitution that all spending must originate in the House. And that’s for a reason, Hugh. The founding fathers wanted the control of both taxes and spending in the body of the Congress that’s elected every two years, so they could jerk us back real quick if they didn’t like what we were doing. And the Senate, of course, is elected, Senators are elected every six years. And so that’s the reason why the House was given that obligation. And we will live up to it. And I will be sure that that is protected.
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HH: Chairman Rogers, a few quick questions. Do you expect to fund the trial of terrorists in America?
HR: Absolutely not. In fact, it was my amendment in the Homeland Security subcommittee, which I was the ranking Republican on, it was my amendment that would prevent any detainee at Guantanamo from being brought to this country for any purpose. And that provision will be in, if it’s passed, the continuing resolution, or the omnibus spending package. That provision is in either of those two bills, which will likely continue the government through ’11. So they will not be brought here.
HH: And do you expect as well that the Guantanamo Bay, in any appropriations bill your committee passes, will remain fully funded?
HR: Yes, absolutely.
HH: Now turning to the Department of Justice, this is where oversight’s going to matter a great deal. Are they well-inspected? Do you think that we know what’s going on inside of DOJ well enough, and how that money’s being spent?
HR: You never know enough about them. When I chaired the Commerce, Justice, State subcommittee that funded the Justice Department, I spent half my time having the attorney general up here testifying, answering questions, and meeting with me privately and with the members of the committee, subcommittee. So that’s sort of a pet agency, including the FBI and the DEA, and the other branches of Justice. But obviously, there are certain things that have to be protected, you know, grand jury secret testimony, and procedures, and that type of thing, which I understand and respect. But for the expenditure of funds, oh and by the way, when I chaired that subcommittee, we, I think it was, we tripled the FBI budget over about a ten year period, because it was at a time when crime was rampant.
HH: Now do you expect….but there have been concerns especially over the voting rights division, that that division is off on frolics and detours, and that they are not prosecuting genuine suppression of voting rights, and that they investigating things that ought not to be investigated. Is that on your radar yet?
HR: It’s on my oversight list.
HH: All right, in terms of the Department of Defense, I already had my interview with Chairman McKeon about…
HR: Great guy, by the way, and he’s doing a great job.
HH: You bet, and he’s pretty solid on the two engines for the F-35. That money’s got to come from your committee, though, doesn’t it?
HR: It goes through, yeah, it goes through the Appropriation Defense subcommittee.
HH: Now just generally, before we do any specifics, are we underfunding the Department of Defense right now?
HR: According to Secretary Gates, we’re overfunding them. But that will be a chief focus of the Defense subcommittee, and I will see that that takes place. And by the way, I’m presently on that subcommittee. But we will keep a close eye on that, to be sure that they have every dollar that they need. Secretary Gates, as you know, has said that he’s prepared to make some cutbacks over there. And I’m sure that there’s places we can save. But we’re not going to save at the expense of the safety of our troops.
HH: Now Mr. Chairman, I’ve got to, I spent a lot of time on this, and I’m one of these people that says when you plus up the number of ships, or you plus up the number of aircraft, that’s not an earmark. Do you agree with me on that?
HR: I agree. I agree.
HH: Now do you think that the rest of the caucus agrees on that, because this is going to be a big divide. That’s why I began this hour talking with you about what is an earmark and what isn’t an earmark. And I just don’t think Defense plus ups are earmarks.
HR: Well, plus ups aren’t earmarks, period. And in Defense, the only way that you can increase their funding is to increase the plus ups for the various pieces of the defense bill. Otherwise, why have a Congress?
HH: Now you’re on that committee. Do you think we have enough ships right now in the United States Navy?
HR: No, I don’t.
HH: And is that something that your committee can actually grapple with independent of Armed Forces and on your own?
HR: Well, we’ll be working together, and we always do, with the Authorizing committee, Buck McKeon’s committee, the subcommittee on Appropriations on Defense. We’ll work closely with Chairman McKeon’s authorizing committee, and what he authorizes, we’ll try to fund. But the primary emphasis will be whatever he and his committee proposes.
HH: All right, I want to close our conversation by talking about foreign aid, which isn’t very popular anywhere, but it’s very important. Will….your committee has control, ultimately, over how much goes to the Department of State for that purpose, correct?
HR: That’s correct.
HH: Do you expect any diminution of our support for the state of Israel?
HR: No, I don’t.
HH: And do you expect any kind of increased funding for foreign aid outside of Israel support?
HR: Well, I’m no big foreign aid person. We will conduct our hearings, we will listen to the authorizing committee and what they recommend, and we will fund what we have to fund, but not a penny more.
HH: And United Nations appropriations, Chairman Rogers, what’s your opinion of those?
HR: Everything’s on the table.
HH: Oh, that’s good.
HR: Everything’s on the table, including our dues to the U.N. And in the past, I’ve been a very severe critic of funding of the U.N., and will keep a close eye on that spending.
HH: Who is your subcommittee chairman on that? Is that known?
HR: It’s not known yet.
HH: All right. And finally, Jeff Flake, a lot of attention paid to the fact that the hell on wheels, anti-appropriator is now an appropriator. How’s that going to, how are you going to get along with Congressman Flake, do you expect?
HR: We’re doing fine. I recommended him.
HR: I recommended him for our committee, and voted for him in the steering committee, and he’s on the committee, and we had our first meeting yesterday with all the Republicans. And he was there, and had a great time. We tease him a little bit, but I’m glad he’s there. He’ll do a good job.
HH: And your freshmen, do they know where they sit yet? Do they know what they’re doing on Appropriations?
HR: (laughing) Well, we’ve named, we named nine new members of the committee, including three freshmen, which is I think unparalleled. At least it’s very rare to put that many freshmen on Appropriations. But we’ve got some really hefty, good people on there from the freshmen class, and from returnees to Congress. And so I’m looking forward to bringing their, they have the newest information from the public, and we want to incorporate them real quickly.
HH: Congressman Rogers, a pleasure meeting you in person on the phone, and I look forward to talking to you early and often over the 2011-2012 cycle. Give my best to Tim Couch as well.
End of interview.