Roger Brill, a Harrison County Tea Party activist, supported Republican Andy Barr’s first election to the U.S. House in 2012. He believed Barr was a young conservative who could remake Congress.
Now, however, Brill fears that Congress has remade Andy Barr. Central Kentucky’s two-term congressman has raked in millions of dollars in campaign donations, much of it from banks he helps from his seat on the House Financial Services Committee, Brill said in a recent interview. While doing favors for Wall Street, Barr voted for unbalanced budgets and more federal debt, and he failed to stop President Obama’s Affordable Care Act or the war on coal, Brill said.
Barr joined the “Washington Republican establishment” that would rather stay in public office for decades than truly fight for conservative causes, he said.
“We’ve had some close votes where Andy quite frankly voted on the wrong side,” Brill said in a recent interview. “It’s not that he’s dishonorably sold himself, because I think he’s an honorable man. But the whole damn system has dishonorably sold itself. It’s just the way things have gotten to be.”
So Brill is taking on Barr in the May 17 Republican primary for the 6th Congressional District, which includes Fayette and 16 other central and eastern Kentucky counties, plus parts of Jessamine and Harrison counties.
He’s the first to admit it’s a long shot. As of March 31, Barr had $1.35 million in his campaign account to Brill’s self-financed $5,385.
“This is supposed to be a government built on ‘We the People,’” said Brill, a welder who owns and operates a steel fabricating shop in Cynthiana. “But they have got so much money up there in Washington and so much power that it’s almost impossible for an ordinary citizen like me to challenge an incumbent. Still, someone has to stand up and try.”
In response, Barr said he understands why conservatives like Brill are frustrated with Congress, but he’s doing his best under tough circumstances. Although he has voted for balanced-budget measures to cut discretionary spending and pay down the national debt, Barr said, the Senate Democratic minority blocked those efforts at the other end of the Capitol. That left him little choice but to go along with massive omnibus spending bills that keep the government open, he said.
“Clearly, the appropriations process is broken in Washington,” Barr said last week in Lexington. “You have a unified Senate minority that is allowed to derail the appropriations process. So at the end of the year, we were faced with a binary choice. The service chiefs came to us and they said, ‘If you don’t pass some kind of appropriations bill that will fund the military, then we will end up with a continuing resolution that will end up with below-sequester-level funding. Which would hollow out our forces, which would compromise readiness.’”
“I make no apologies for being a national security conservative as well as a fiscal conservative,” Barr said.
Fighting bank regulations
Barr, 42, is a Lexington lawyer who ousted Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler in 2012 and easily defeated a Democratic challenger, Elisabeth Jensen, two years later.
During his interview last week, Barr pointed to a string of accomplishments that he’s had a hand in during the 114th Congress that ends in December.
His Helping Expand Lending Practices in Rural Communities Act was signed into law as part of a five-year surface transportation bill. It lets rural counties that feel they have been wrongly classified as “non-rural” petition the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for a redesignation, which relaxes some federal lending restrictions on their local banks. As a result of Barr’s work, Bath County — with about 12,000 residents — was reclassified as rural.
Barr said he’s also proud of his support for the successful repeal of both the No Child Left Behind Act, returning power over K-12 schools to the states, and the “sustainable growth rate” formula that allowed the government to repeatedly cut Medicare provider reimbursements. More work needs to be done in fixing education policy and entitlement spending, but these are solid improvements, he said.
As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, with jurisdiction over banking, insurance, securities and housing, Barr focuses much of his attention on the financial sector. Half of his bills in the 114th Congress deal with banking, usually an attempt to roll back sections of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a package of prohibitions on risky lending and investments that was enacted in response to the 2008 economic crash.
Barr said his opposition to Dodd-Frank has nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations he’s collected from major banks and investment firms that loathe the law. Under Dodd-Frank, ordinary people in the 6th Congressional District have a hard time borrowing money to buy homes or expand their businesses because of “over-regulation by unelected bureaucrats in Washington,” Barr said.
“The fact of the matter is, our economy is not doing well,” Barr said. “I’m doing what’s in the best interest of my constituents. And what’s in the best interest of my constituents is that a middle-income family in Winchester can get a loan for their car so they can get to work and make a paycheck so they can put food on the table for their kids.”
Frustrated with the establishment
Brill, 67, is less sanguine about Barr’s accomplishments. After two terms in Congress, Brill said, Barr has yet to slash taxes or government spending. The federal debt has climbed from $16 trillion to $19 trillion. It seems unlikely a third term will advance anything other than Barr’s political career, he said.
“The Republican establishment, they don’t want the conservatives to start any fights because they’ve had such good electoral success running against Obama that they figure they’ll just keep giving him everything he wants and they can run against him to get two more years,” Brill said. “They don’t really want anything to change.”
In March, Brill confronted Barr about his House votes during their joint appearance on KET’s Kentucky Tonight. For example, Brill said, while claiming to be pro-life, Barr voted in the budget to give more than $500 million to Planned Parenthood, an organization that performs abortions around the country. (Planned Parenthood gets Medicaid and Title X funds for low-income health and family-planning programs. These federal funds cannot be used to pay for abortions.)
Barr protested that he does oppose public funding for Planned Parenthood. But the federal budget process is complicated, he said.
“What a lot of people apparently don’t understand is that in — you can’t defund Planned Parenthood in an appropriations bill because most of the money that goes to Planned Parenthood is mandatory spending,” Barr said. “Seventy percent of all federal outlays last year came from mandatory spending — Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security — that’s —”
Impatiently wagging his finger at Barr, Brill cut him off.
“If you really wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, you would have done it,” Brill said. “You did not lack the means. You have a 60-vote majority (in the House) and you hold the Senate. If you wanted to do it, you would have done it.”
Garland Hale “Andy” Barr IV
Born: July 24, 1973
Education: Bachelor’s degree in government and philosophy, University of Virginia; law degree, University of Kentucky College of Law
Elected office: U.S. House, 2013 to present
Family: Married (Eleanor Carol Leavell), two daughters
Roger Q. Brill Sr.
Born: Dec. 26, 1948
Education: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, University of Nebraska
Occupation: Owner and operator, Steel Trailer Co.
Family: Single, one son