Long a Congress power broker, Hal Rogers finds his clout waning

Rep. Hal Rogers, left, accompanied by state Rep. Greg Stumbo, then-speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, before a morning news conference at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital in Lexington, July 12, 2013.
Rep. Hal Rogers, left, accompanied by state Rep. Greg Stumbo, then-speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, before a morning news conference at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital in Lexington, July 12, 2013. Lexington Herald-Leader

Rep. Hal Rogers, long a Washington power broker, is suddenly politically mortal.

The Republican senior statesman from Kentucky relinquished his powerful perch as House Appropriations Committee chairman earlier this year due to term limits.

He wanted to become chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Instead he got the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee, whose responsibilities seem far removed from the needs of his rural 5th Congressional District in eastern Kentucky.

He raised only $3,000 the first three months of the year for his re-election campaign after raising 10 times that much two years before and 20 times that much four years before, according to campaign finance data.

Gary Cohn, the White House chief economic adviser, said last week that the kind of highway projects Rogers had promoted in his district didn’t fit President Donald Trump’s infrastructure vision.

And if Trump, who won Rogers’ district with nearly 80 percent of the vote in November, continues to be unpopular nationally, next year’s midterm elections could bump Republicans back into the minority and further dilute Rogers’ clout.

Rogers spokeswoman Danielle Smoot said the congressman, first elected in 1980, was as engaged as ever. He’s planning fundraising events in the spring and will file for re-election.

“He is a respected leader in the House of Representatives,” Smoot said, “and he looks forward to continuing this work in this Congress and beyond.”

Rogers, who will turn 80 in December, would be a strong favorite to easily win his 20th term. He has $1 million in his campaign treasury, and he hasn’t had a serious challenger in years.

Still, he won’t be as prominent in the insular world of Capitol clout-watchers. “He hit the pinnacle,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group that’s often criticized programs Rogers has supported.

“That’s the reason a lot of lawmakers retire after their chairmanship,” Ellis said.

Smoot said that wasn’t the case with Rogers. “Any speculation that he is stepping down is patently false,” she said.

In just a year, Rogers went from chairman of the committee that controls big chunks of government spending to being “another subcommittee chair,” Ellis said.

As a result, Rogers may be less able to protect the Appalachian Regional Commission, a 50-year-old body that’s brought improved highways, education and job training opportunities to eastern Kentucky and a dozen other Appalachian states.

Trump’s budget blueprint proposes to end funding for the commission. Though lawmakers aren’t likely to agree to kill it, the new appropriations chairman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, is from New Jersey, and the program isn’t as meaningful to his district as it is to Rogers’.

“As chairman, he could have protected it,” Ellis said of Rogers. “He’s not quite in that position right now.”

Rogers is also unlikely to bring the same level of federal dollars back to his district as he did in the past. He secured more than $100 million in earmarks, or specially designated government-funded projects, over 15 years to build Interstate 66 through his hometown of Somerset.

So far, only a 4-mile segment has been completed, and states surrounding Kentucky gave up on their plans to build the road long ago.

The moderator of a discussion last week with White House adviser Cohn noted that Rogers’ district had “the most beautiful highways in the world” where “unfortunately, there are no people.”

“How do you ensure you’re not building bridges to nowhere?” asked Tim Adams, president and CEO of the Institute of International Finance, a former U.S. Treasury official and a Kentucky native.

“We don’t want to be in the business of just doling out money,” replied Cohn, who’s taken a lead role in forming the Trump administration’s infrastructure blueprint. “We want to build the smart infrastructure where we’re going to change people’s lives.”

Then there’s the matter of fundraising. Not only are Rogers’ first-quarter numbers far below comparable totals of the past, they’re dwarfed by his fellow Kentucky Republicans.

Rep. Andy Barr raised more than $396,000, more than 100 times more than Rogers, in the first three months of the year, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Barr’s district is more competitive than Rogers’.

To be sure, the second-quarter filings, which will be made public in July, could reveal that Rogers has caught up in fundraising. Not that it would matter.

“You can only read so much into fundraising,” said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes congressional races for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “This is a member who really does not need to raise much money.”

What Rogers and other veteran Republicans may have to worry more about, Kondik said, is losing control of the House. Rogers served in the minority until 1994, when Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years. A key reason for the wave was President Bill Clinton’s unpopularity.

Democrats won it back in 2006 for much the same reason, when they ran against a highly unpopular George W. Bush administration. Republicans regained control in 2010 during President Barack Obama’s first term, elevating Rogers to the appropriations chairmanship.

“If Trump’s approval rating is roughly what it is now in the fall of 2018, that generally bodes poorly for the president’s party,” Kondik said. “The possibility certainly exists for a turnover.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis