As GOP slashes budget, lawmakers who built careers on earmarks must re-brand
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 12:13 AM
WILLIAMSBURG, KY. - Is Rep. Harold Rogers the right man to break Congress's addiction to spending?
One might ponder that question at the water park here, part of the Hal Rogers Family Entertainment Center. Or maybe during a drive on Hal Rogers Boulevard. Or Hal Rogers Drive. Or Hal Rogers Parkway.
Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is the point man for GOP budget slashing. But he didn't get a water park for cutting budgets: The park, like everything else, was a reward for directing federal spending to Kentucky.
One of Rogers's top committee deputies is Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R). In Florida, his name adorns a drawbridge, a marine science complex and a military depot.
Their stories reveal the larger struggle behind the current spending debate in Washington. It's not just about money. It's about Congress's DNA - and changing the definition of what a Congress member is.
Lawmakers have long seen themselves in part as human funnels whose primary job is to bring home federal money. Now, the GOP wants its members to define themselves by what they can reduce, defund or terminate.
That makes Rogers and Young, masters of the old culture, key indicators of whether the new model will work. If they can turn against the system that built their monuments, anyone can.
"I don't think that they've had a road-to-Damascus moment" that produced a lasting conversion, said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that opposes earmarks. "It's been forced upon them."
Rogers, 73, has been in Congress for 30 years. Young, 80, has been there for 40, and now chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee. In the past, overseeing congressional spending would have made them the Ed McMahons of Capitol Hill, passing out big checks to happy people.
Now, it means supervising a historic spending reduction and a ban on millions in earmarks for folks back home. A Rogers spokeswoman said he is committed to sacrifice, "even if it affects his own back yard."
Young said that he, too, is on board. "I go by the rules," he said in an interview. "Whether I agree with them or not."
But so far, these two have been left behind by the Republican Party's aggressive freshmen. Rogers had to redo this year's budget proposal (called a "continuing resolution") after the newcomers demanded deeper reductions.