Earlier this week the House Republican Steering Committee and House Republican Conference tapped Harold “Hal” Rogers as the next Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Selection of the senior member of Kentucky’s House delegation was greeted by protests from Left and Right.
Mr. Rogers previously served as both chairman and ranking-member of the Homeland Security subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. He also served on the transportation and defense appropriations subcommittees. (See his official biography.)
Elected in 1980 to represent one the nation’s most economically challenged congressional districts, Mr. Rogers has been effective directing federal funds to a wide array of local wants and needs. As such he has been assailed by the Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), New York Times, and others as the “Prince of Pork.” This accusation headlined most of the news coverage given his pending role as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Mr. Rogers has joined other GOP leaders in pledging no-new-earmarks.
Constituting less than .05 percent (half of one percent) of the federal budget I perceive outrage over earmarks to be one of those symptoms that complicate diagnosis and treatment of the underlying disease. In this particular case the pork barrel critiques of Mr. Rogers also obscure his substantive legislative record and specific interest in homeland security.
Full disclosure: from 2005 through 2007 I was Chairman of the Board of a company with a facility in Mr. Rogers congressional district. As such I often participated in local economic development activities and met with Mr. Rogers or his staff. During several of these discussions, homeland security was a topic. While we would not have turned down an earmark sponsored by Mr. Rogers, the company I served did not receive such support.
From this experience I came away with three strong impressions:
1. Mr. Rogers is an accessible and intelligent man. He has a particular interest in homeland security and especially in how science and technology can be a force-multiplier. In my first encounter with the Congressman he quizzed me on homeland security like the former prosecutor he is. He knows the issues. He understands the complications. He is sophisticated in his strategic approach to homeland security challenges. He listens. This personal impression was confirmed by watching him question witnesses in subcommittee hearings.
2. Mr. Rogers is consistently bipartisan in his approach. The old saw says there are three parties on Capitol Hill: Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators. While Mr. Rogers is certainly conservative in most ways, appropriators tend to be pragmatic and less partisan. This approach served him well in the Minority, it is likely to mark his return to the Majority and to leadership of the full Appropriations Committee. Chairing Appropriations has been a long-time personal ambition. On December 31 he will turn 73. Mr. Rogers is not looking to squander this opportunity. Leaving a meaningful legacy is one of the more constructive motivations.
3. Like all members of Congress and most busy professionals, Mr. Rogers is — at least in part – a creature of his staff and contacts. Every staff member I met was smart, competent, and wildly over-worked. Both on Capitol Hill and back in the District what I observed was a tendency for the most narrowly self-interested people to be the most assertive and effective communicators, proposers, and planners. On several occasions I saw senior public servants choke and defer when Mr. Rogers or his staff were entirely prepared to listen to alternatives. In retrospect I was one of a whole host of folks who should have — could have — pushed harder on key issues of homeland security. My hesitation — our hesitation, or cynicism, or laziness, or disdain — just offers opportunity to others who are more willing and ready claim a Congressman’s attention.
Because homeland security — the mission, not the budget per se – is important to me, I will be glad to see Mr. Rogers become Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He is more interested in and better able to meaningfully engage homeland security than any other serious candidate for the leadership role.
As always in democracies — even those with republican constitutions — the quality of leadership will reflect and largely depend on the quality of those who choose to seriously engage the process.