Kentucky clout in House erodes as GOP members lose titles, power

Because five of Kentucky’s six House members are Republicans, the state is about to lose some Washington clout as the GOP lawmakers lose their big titles and power to set the agenda.

But the state will still have some important ability to get what it wants.

When Democrats take control of the House in January, Rep. Andy Barr will lose his chairmanship of the Committee on Financial Services’ subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade, where he says he’s been able to look out for Kentucky interests, including the bourbon industry.

Rep. Hal Rogers gives up leading the powerful appropriations subcommittee that decides spending for the State Department and foreign operations.

However, the state’s lone Democrat, Rep. John Yarmuth, will become House Budget Committee chairman, leading the effort to write the outlines of future federal budgets.

And in the Senate, Kentucky will retain important influence, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remains a symbol of undiminished relevancy.

“He (McConnell) is powerful in a way that no other person in Congress is, with the possible exception of (potential House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and a veteran political reporter. Yarmuth’s position, he added, gives Kentucky “a seat at the leadership table” in the House.

In addition to McConnell looking to rural America, Cross said he expects House Democrats such as Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, and Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, who represent upper Upper Mississippi Valley counties that went from Obama to Trump in 2016, to remind House leaders they need to pay attention to rural America.

Still, Kentucky Republicans are smarting.

For Rogers, giving up chairmanship of an appropriations subcommittee is a further diminution of the clout he enjoyed until 2017, when he stepped down from his powerful perch as House Appropriations Committee chairman.

2019 will be his third stint serving in the minority party.

“It’s a different world,” Rogers said. “I don’t look forward to it much, but we’ll make the best of it.”

Hal Rogers
In December 2014, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., then chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, helped negotiate a $1.1 trillion spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. Rogers said the measure “will allow us to fulfill our constitutional duty to responsibly fund the federal government and avoid a shutdown.” J. Scott Applewhite AP

Rogers, renowned for securing money for projects in his district, including $500 million earlier this year for a federal prison in Letcher County, said he’ll still find a way to deliver as a respected former chairman on a committee he says is marked by collegiality.

“In my previous experiences in the minority, I was able to get things done by working across the aisle, which I’ve made a practice of,” Rogers said.

It’s questionable whether Rogers will be as able to wrangle dollars from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state agency that aims to fight poverty and improve conditions in 13 Appalachian states.

Cross said he believes Rogers will find a way.

“Hal Rogers’ experience and knowledge of the bureaucracy will allow him to continue to be successful in getting money for his district,” Cross said. “I’d be very surprised if he’s unable to capitalize on the relationships he’s built.”

In the House’s Lexington area district, Barr overcame an aggressive challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath. He hopes to stay on the subcommittee as its top Republican and noted he has a good relationship with incoming committee chairwoman Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California. He worked with her on efforts to modernize the way the U.S. screens foreign investment.

“I hope the new majority doesn’t just fight the president the whole time and does seek out some opportunity for some across the aisle progress,” Barr said.

Waters, one of Trump’s biggest critics, has reportedly told her Democratic colleagues she wants to pursue an intense dive into President Trump’s “money trail,” beginning with his ties to Deutsche Bank, one of the banks that provided Trump with financing before he became president.

Trump derided Waters as an “an extraordinarily low IQ person” after she called on her supporters to publicly confront members of the administration.

At the budget committee, Yarmuth hopes to retool the panel to focus on oversight, delving into how the federal budget will be affected by various issues, including immigration and climate change.

“These are the kind of conversations we never have in Congress, a 30,000 foot look at issues and how the taxpayer is going to be affected,” Yarmuth said.

Closer to home, Yarmuth said he’ll be well-positioned to look out for the state and he’s already spoken about it with several of his Kentucky Republican colleagues.

“Being at the leadership table in the majority is by itself an advantage for Kentucky,” he said, adding that as the sole Democrat in the delegation, “there’s more responsibility on me to make sure that Kentucky’s interests are represented and reflected in our agenda.”

In the Senate, McConnell was easily re-elected to his leadership post last week and has a history of taking care of his state. McConnell, who has consistently been unpopular in Kentucky, is already preparing to run for his re-election in 2020.

McConnell noted after his re-election as leader that he has the power to set the Senate agenda and its schedule.

“I have and will continue to consistently choose to prioritize legislation and nominations that will directly benefit the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” McConnell said. Among his initiatives: He championed efforts in 2014 to legalize hemp and is now pushing a farm bill that would remove most restrictions on the crop.

Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, is familiar with the Washington’s delegation’s new status. He said he was “able to survive” the 11 years he spent as a legislator in the state House in Frankfort, serving in the minority the entire time. It was easier because Republicans held the Senate, he said.

“What helped was we had a Republican Senate, same as now and I worked closely with the Senate president,” Comer said, adding that he expects that to continue with McConnell.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark