When the House gaveled out for the year last month, lawmakers from both parties quickly made for the exits, eager to put one of the ugliest sessions in recent memory behind them.
One who didn’t sprint to the airport was Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (Ky.), who sat back in his office just off the floor and enjoyed a cigar, content in the knowledge that despite the gridlock, the bickering and near total breakdown in the legislative process, his committee had overseen a productive year of lawmaking.
“It’s been one heck of a year,” the 31-year veteran of legislative battles said between puffs.
“We’ve succeeded, frankly, beyond my expectations,” Rogers said, adding that despite the conventional wisdom that the GOP’s earmark ban and anti-spending fervor would cripple him, the committee was once again the biggest game in town.
In fact, Rogers said, despite those handicaps “the subcommittees did things they hadn’t done in years. That is, actually legislate and compromise” in churning out appropriations measures that ultimately made up last month’s omnibus bill.
In a statement following passage of the omnibus in December, Appropriations ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) praised the committee and touted its return to prominence in the chamber.
“The Appropriations Committee has begun to restore its reputation as a workhorse committee, finding ways to resolve our differences without drama and quietly getting our work done,” Dicks said.
“In an era of profound partisan gridlock, I am proud of the work done by the Appropriations Committee,” he added.
“Partisan gridlock” barely scratches the surface in describing the level of acrimony and dysfunction that plagued Congress last year. Aside from the debt ceiling increase, a package of broadly popular trade deals, the defense authorization measure and a handful of mundane minor bills, virtually the only pieces of legislation that were signed into law by President Barack Obama all originated in Rogers’ committee.
“We were the only place where the action was all year long, whether for good or bad,” Rogers said.
Indeed, although Democrats were able to strip out numerous riders, Rogers and his subcommittee chairmen, or cardinals, were able to implement a wide array of key GOP policies. For instance, the final conference report included the elimination of 28 federal programs, lifted a ban on production of incandescent light bulbs, implemented mandatory E-Verify requirements for federal hires, prohibited the District of Columbia from using federal or local funds to provide abortion services, and implemented limits on key provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
Additionally, while the final appropriations level will not zero out funding for all of Obama’s signature health care law, Republicans were successful in eliminating increases to the IRS targeted toward implementing parts of the law.
And those are just some of the dozens of policy provisions large and small that Rogers tucked into the bill, largely at the request of authorizing committees who found themselves unable to move almost any part of their agendas.
Although committees passed numerous regulatory reform measures and other GOP priorities, they “send it the Senate, and it dies. So the authorizers got little done this year … so the only other place to go is the appropriations bills. We did more riders than I can ever recall on an omnibus bill,” Rogers said.
But the road to success wasn’t easy for Rogers. In fact, if you had told just about anyone in Washington a year ago that Rogers — one of the last Old Bulls left in a House dominated by angry ideologues — would sit atop the most powerful committee in Congress, you would have been laughed out of town.
“Those earmarks were helpful in recruiting votes” in the past, Rogers acknowledged.
“We knew it was going to be difficult for any number of reasons. One, in our caucus, we had so many new Members, 87 of ’em, half of them had never served in any political office and most of whom were elected on a platform of slashing spending, frankly beyond anything that was possible, but nevertheless, they came here with that in their mandate,” Rogers said.
Rogers said that reality was particularly difficult to deal with because Congress “immediately jump into the H.R. 1 omnibus, because we were left with no appropriations bills … and we had all those new Members who were crying for blood on spending. So we started on H.R. 1.”
Although Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) largely controlled that process, Rogers said it paved the way for their eventual successes on the handful of spending measures that were passed.
The freshmen “got their feet wet in the process and learned a lot of the ins and outs of this place,” Rogers said, adding that the open amendment process also helped because “the votes they were having to take were pretty tough votes one way or the other.”
Rogers also credited Boehner’s leadership style in his ability to be successful.
“Leadership has been very helpful. The fact that Speaker Boehner was able to negotiate that debt ceiling” with a spending cap “to get us on the same wavelength as the Senate” made things much easier, Rogers said.
More fundamentally, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) early on agreed to leave spending matters up to Rogers and his cardinals, which allowed them to more effectively negotiate with the Senate and with other House Republicans.
“The Speaker, to his great credit, and the Leader, deferred to us on this bill. At the outset we said, ‘Look, we can handle this,’” Rogers said.
“There’d be pressure on the Speaker and Leader to intervene and tell us to do such and so … and they didn’t do that. They told those people, ‘Look you have to deal with Hal Rogers and the committee.’ And that was really helpful because it gave us a single place where we could negotiate.”
Rogers and the subcommittee chairmen spent much of the year working with rank-and-file Members, as well as authorizers, explaining to them what they could do and how best to pursue policy priorities through the appropriations process.
Still, when push came to shove in December, Rogers faced a difficult lift, particularly with the GOP Conference’s younger Members.
“Many of them were nervous with voting for something they didn’t have much knowledge of,” Rogers said. So he organized a meeting with subcommittee chairmen to go through the bill “subcommittee by subcommittee” and explain it in detail.
And while he still ultimately lost numerous Republicans, “I’ve heard so many freshmen especially since then say, ‘That opened my eyes up to what you guys do,’” Rogers said.
He said the attacks on Appropriations’ stature — and the prevailing hostility toward spending — also helped to break the partisan divide on the committee and bring the Members closer together.
“It’s been very acrimonious, very partisan. Norm Dicks and I agreed that we were gonna dial that stuff back and get back to regular order, the way Appropriations has historically done. And we had to because we’re the only committee that has to pass bills or the government shuts down,” Rogers said.
“The relationship I have with Norm Dicks is the best,” Rogers added, describing his Democratic colleague as representing “fairness and reasonableness.”
In the end, Rogers said, Members on both sides of the aisle had a mutual goal.
“Members wanted to bring it back to its stature, and I think we’ve come a long way in that regard,” he said.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.