WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers — who has steered hundreds of millions of federal dollars to projects in his rural district over three decades — knows he must change his ways if he becomes the next chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
"We have no choice. We're in a drastic, dire situation, federal funding-wise. The deficit is off the charts," Rogers said. "The borrowing that we're doing from China is threatening our sovereignty even. So we're in a drastic situation. We have to cut back on spending. And earmarks, unfortunately, became the symbolism of overspending. And so we have no choice but to rein them in."
The possible ascension of Rogers in the wake of the Tea Party-fueled Republican takeover of the House concerns federal budget watchdogs, who worry that the very type of government pork that Tea Party candidates decried in their campaigns could flourish under Rogers' leadership.
"This is a situation where you have someone who is going to be one of the chief spokesmen on spending, the chairman, down on the floor talking about the issue that got a lot of the people there elected," said Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's a bit of a problem for the Republicans because of the fact that the head of the spending committee will be someone who was a prolific earmarker."
With Republicans promising to rein in federal spending, Rogers acknowledges it will be more difficult to continue the flow of money to his anti-drug program Operation UNITE, his environmental cleanup program PRIDE, as well as other initiatives he helped create and fund.
Rogers, who won his 16th term Tuesday, and fellow Republicans have a moratorium on earmarks for fiscal 2011 and have pledged to reduce spending and knock down the deficit. Rogers' programs may end up relying more heavily on state aid or merit-based federal grants.
"They'll have to change the way they finance themselves," Rogers said.
Rogers still must overcome a couple of hurdles to become chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which has purview over hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending.
The current top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, will ask for a waiver from a term-limit rule to stay on as chairman, Rogers said. However, Rogers, who is friends with the next likely House Speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, said Republicans have never waived that rule.
"It's a conundrum because they are both not that different," Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said of Rogers and Lewis. "They're both heavily into earmarks, and they're both going to have to take a pledge on earmark reform to get the post."
This fiscal year alone, Rogers sponsored or co-sponsored 50 earmarks totaling $93.4 million, ranking 10th out of the 435 representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in politics.
Rogers also was instrumental in creating myriad federally funded programs aimed at luring employers to the region, promoting agriculture development, beefing up tourism and battling drug abuse.
The Daniel Boone Parkway was renamed the Hal Rogers Parkway in honor of the congressman's efforts to have the federal government pay the parkway's construction bonds. Rogers has long pushed for, but not gotten full funding for, a four-lane interstate between Somerset and London, designated as I-66.
If given the nod, Rogers would join eight likely Republican committee chair candidates who since 2007 have received the majority of their campaign funds from special interest political action committees, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan research group.
Since 2007, Rogers has received just over $836,000 in individual contributions and more than $ 1.1 million in PAC money, the Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign donation data found.
That money includes at least $35,000 from defense titan Lockheed Martin and nearly $30,000 from defense contractor Raytheon Corp. Rogers sits on the Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee and is the former chairman of and current ranking Republican on the homeland security subcommittee.
"The chairmanships are very much fiefdoms," said Josh Israel, who helped research the study. "... It very much remains to be seen if these chairmen will change their ways."