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Bill Straub: Sending out condolences to Hal Rogers, holder of the worst job in Washington

WASHINGTON – It’s long past time to extend condolences to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who holds perhaps the worst job in all of Washington D.C. – a town with an untold number of terrible jobs.

Rogers, R-Somerset, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a panel that usually carries the adjective “powerful’’ in front of its name. Appropriations essentially is the congressional panel that doles out the lucre. The chairmanship should be an especially potent position since all spending bills must originate in the House. All that legislation, involved in the expending of trillions of dollars, carries Rogers’ name.

The House Appropriations Committee is so powerful, in fact, that the 12 lawmakers that hold subcommittee chairmanships are known as Cardinals, which by extension would make Rogers the Pope.

But rather than collect alms, Rogers would be better served receiving some Hail Marys tossed in his direction. The current House Appropriations Committee has seen its authority dissipate likes sands through the hourglass. And the pejoratives aimed in Rogers’ direction are as thick as bullets at a firing range.

The Appropriations chairmanship has traditionally been held by hard-bitten individuals, a fact perhaps personified by Rogers’ near-immediate predecessor, former Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat who generally was recognized as possessing one of the nastier dispositions in the entire House of Representatives – he once reportedly pushed Rep. Maxine Waters, D-CA, no shrinking violet herself, during a loud argument on the House floor over a funding request.

That is not Hal Rogers’ style. In fact, being one of the more affable members of the lower chamber, quick with a handshake or a backslap, plus a willingness to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, positioned him to take over the committee when Republicans regained the majority after the 2010 elections.

So an argument could be made that Rogers is too nice a guy to handle the often contentious duties of the House Appropriations Committee. But truth be known, very few individuals, if anyone, can handle the bucking bronco of a committee under the chamber’s current make-up.

Ironically, the problem is not coming from Democrats, who are in the minority and realize they have limited influence. Rogers is about as good a GOP chairman as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, and other could hope for – a guy you can talk to and work with.

Nope. The problems are coming from the young guns on the GOP side, the “crazies’’ as some critics characterize them, and outside influences who abhor Rogers’ commitment to pass legislation to fund the federal government, which, after all, is his job.

At the same time Rogers assumed the chairmanship in 2011, a new crop of conservative lawmakers, many with connections to the burgeoning Tea Party movement, assumed their spots in the House and immediately demanded changes, particularly in regards to federal spending.

The campaign to rollback funding for key programs offered Rogers problems enough but the freshmen pushed further, demanding an end to earmarks – funding for specific projects and programs within the budget. The use of earmarks had provided Rogers with the sobriquet “Prince of Pork’’ since he had consistently proved able to funnel federal funds into his poor, Southeastern Kentucky district.

House Republican leaders bowed to the demand, making Rogers job immensely difficult if not near impossible. Without money for projects to dole out in return for support for the 12 spending bills that are supposed to be passed every year, the chairman found himself without necessary leverage.

Last October, Rogers told reporter Joe Arnold of WHAS-TV in Louisville that killing earmarks was “not wise.’’

“I liked earmarks because it allowed members of Congress — who know their district better than anybody else — know what they need. But we kicked that ball down the court to now where the bureaucrats in the executive branch a thousand miles away have no idea what the needs are in my district. And yet I’m unable to congressionally tell them where to spend money.’’

Regardless, House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, and the rest of leadership acquiesced to the demand. Rogers said he wants to get back to passing the 12 regular appropriations bills, something that hasn’t been done in 15 years. But doing so is fraught with potholes without something to negotiate with.

So the chairmanship doesn’t carry the authority it once did. Rogers has less discretionary money to distribute and he doesn’t have the power to grant favors in return for votes, all of which means he spends most of his time herding cats.

But Rogers’ determination to fix the spending conundrum has drawn opposition from, you guessed it, the Tea Party, which is looking for someone to oppose him in the 2016 GOP primary for the seat in the 5th Congressional District.

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In a little-noticed article that appeared last November in Breitbart, the house organ of the off-the-chart right, Scott Hofstra, the spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party, accused Rogers of trying to help President Obama pass “amnesty’’ for about five million undocumented workers and that his organization is openly seeking a viable opponent.

The dust-up can be traced back to late last year when Rogers diligently worked to pass a $3.4 trillion spending plan to keep the government running to Nov. 1. The endeavor passed but drew opposition from conservatives who were livid that the legislation failed to reverse or undermine Obama’s executive order providing relief to illegal aliens.

Now there’s another challenge. The omnibus spending bill that passed Congress late last year didn’t contain year-long funding for the Department of Homeland Security – the agency that contains the Immigration & Naturalization Service. The money for the agency is due to run out on Feb. 27. The House passed a $40 billion funding measure for the agency but it included language reversing the president’s executive orders on immigration. The bill has gone nowhere as a result of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

A showdown is looming with the possibility that the Department of Homeland Security may face at least a temporary shutdown.

So once again Rogers is caught in the middle.

If the House doesn’t back down the agency will close and Rogers will have failed to perform is job to keep the dollars flowing. If he and other moderate Republicans reconsider and adopt a no-strings-attached funding measure with support from Democrats, conservatives will howl like stuck pigs and the enmity already directed at Rogers will only grow harsher.

Nice job, huh?


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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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