By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, admits his frustration.
The federal deficit — while still large— has fallen by almost half since he took over the committee. But no one seems to notice.
He’s tried to write appropriations bills which conform to the draconian budget passed by the Republican House and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, but when those bills with the deep cuts to domestic spending programs necessary to meet that budget come to the floor, the same Republican House won’t pass them.
“A lot of our new, younger members on the budget committee like to be on the committee because if sounds good and they do it sort of as a messaging operation,” said Rogers. “What some of them don’t realize is that in addition to being a message, it’s a real number that we’re limited by.”
The Ryan budget makes deep cuts in discretionary spending — the operating portion of the federal budget excluding entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But those excluded popular programs make up two-thirds of the entire budget which in turn means cuts to the remainder have greater impact.
“People don’t realize the discretionary part of the budget is so trimmed now and that we’re cutting into the bone on a lot of vital programs if it keeps going this way,” Rogers said.
It’s Rogers’ job and that of his committee to write 12 appropriations bills which set spending for major government programs and operations and which conform to the bottom line number set by the Ryan budget.
But last month when one of the 12, the Transportation and House and Urban Development appropriation bill, came to the House floor there weren’t enough votes to pass it and House Republican Leadership pulled the bill.
Speaker John Boehner said he pulled the bill because of scheduling difficulties, something Rogers said is accurate but: “I do think though we would have had difficulty getting the votes to pass it” because even many Republicans balked at the cuts.
Rogers, now in his 17th term, places the blame on the so-called sequester, a component of a 2011 Budget Control Act which requires automatic, across the board cuts to non-entitlement programs.
When it was first agreed to by the White House and Congress, each side thought the prospect of those meat-cleaver cuts would be too onerous for either side to accept. But now, the tea party faction of the Republican House, and some Republican Senators including Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, support keeping the sequester as a way to restrain federal spending.
When the Transportation/HUD bill failed, Rogers warned his own party that the sequester-required cuts in spending can’t be sustained.
“Sequestration is the biggest culprit,” Rogers said. “On top of the ultra-low number the Budget Committee gave us, it makes it impossible to pass these bills individually and intact.”
Rogers said resolving the impasse over the sequestration is “above my pay grade,” but he believes there is hope for an agreement between the White House and Congress on entitlement reforms and spending levels if the White House gives up its insistence of more “net new revenue” or higher taxes — “that’s a no-go for Republicans.”
But until that happens, he sees no way to fund the government short of a short-term continuing resolution.
Some Republicans, however, let by those in the House who identify with the tea party and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz are calling for such a CR to cut out all funding for the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” to Republicans. Rogers — who also opposes the ACA — said that won’t work.
“You’re guaranteeing a government shutdown if you expect the president to repeal his signature legislation,” said Rogers who was in the House in 1995 when then Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Republicans forced a shutdown of the government. The result was the public mood swung against the Republicans and Clinton won easy election and Democrats picked up seats.
“A shutdown is not good for (Republicans) politically, much less for the country,” Rogers said.
In many ways, Rogers is in a tough spot. He’s known for directing federal funding to his poor eastern Kentucky district — the second poorest in the entire country — and he worked his way up the leadership ranks to claim the coveted chairmanship of the powerful appropriations committee just as more conservative Republicans took over the party and the House.
“It’s a heavy chore that’s been assigned to me,” Rogers said, joking the committee should be renamed the “Dis-appropriation Committee.”
He’s often caught between the determination of the House majority to cut spending and the needs of his district. That bind is demonstrated by the House effort to drastically cut food stamps, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP.
Traditionally part of the farm bill, the House couldn’t pass a bill to fund farm programs which would have cut SNAP by $20 billion because Democrats wouldn’t vote for those cuts and many tea party Republicans didn’t think the cuts were deep enough.
Boehner split the bill, passing a farm bill without SNAP and promised to bring a SNAP-only bill up for a vote in the future but that bill may double the food stamp cuts to $40 billion.
Rogers won’t support those kinds of cuts to a program which many in his district rely on.
House leadership “understand(s) I represent the second-poorest district in the country,” Rogers said. “And they know I’m going to protect that program whatever it takes.”
Rogers said the Agriculture Appropriations Bill he and his committee wrote includes funding for food stamps.
“The level is just slightly less than the president’s request but that’s because enrollment has been dropping,” Rogers said. “So it’s fully funded in that Agricultural Appropriations Bill and it will be part of the continuing resolution.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.