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As GOP slashes budget, lawmakers who built careers on earmarks must re-brand

By David A. Fahrenthold and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; A01

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 member of Congress 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.

Young said Congress was likely to keep funding an alternative engine for a fighter plane. Then the freshmen helped kill the measure.

In the end, Rogers seemed caught between the old ways and the new: He voted with Democrats to defeat a proposal from the GOP's conservative wing that would have cut $22 billion more from the budget. Then, when the House approved smaller but still severe cuts Saturday morning, he issued a statement trumpeting what "we" had done.

The real spending debate is still to come: If the Senate passes a budget with smaller reductions, the House will have to compromise - or risk shutting down the government. Young and Rogers will help shape that debate.

All this marks a sharp turn for both men, masters of the soft art of having things named after them. Congress's all-time leader in this category is probably former senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose list runs more than 30, including a high school, a prison and two federal buildings.

Rogers and Young both say they weren't trying to follow Byrd's example. "I never asked for any of those things to be named after me," Young said in an interview. "And on occasion, when I knew they were planning it, I asked them not to."

But one doesn't have to ask.

Instead, the accepted custom is that a member of Congress directs federal spending to projects that local officials want. Those grateful officials slap the lawmaker's name on a building or a bridge.

When it works, voters reelect the name on the sign, giving the lawmaker precious seniority and the local officials a better advocate.

Here in Kentucky, it works.

"I don't know what he's done, but he's done something right," said Jewel Robinson, who owns a hair salon on Hal Rogers Parkway in Hazard, Ky. The parkway was named after Daniel Boone until the state renamed it for Rogers in 2003 because he secured $13 million to end tolls on the road.

Rogers, a former prosecutor, sponsored $175 million worth of earmarks from 2008 to 2010, placing him fourth out of 435 representatives, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense (Young was second, with $298 million). In an Appalachian region locked in poverty, Rogers made money the center of his political persona, saying that "a vision without funding is a hallucination."

Today, community college students sip coffee in the Harold Rogers Student Commons. Recruits fight fires at the Hal Rogers Fire Training Center. Every day in the summer, 1,100 people visit the water park - which the city named after Rogers in gratitude for $40 million he had sent to the area.

And Rogers has won his past seven elections by an average of 62 percentage points.

In a flower shop in downtown Williamsburg, florist Greg Prewitt said only one other man was as beloved - or as well known - in this region.

"Everybody likes the colonel, because he brought the fried chicken," Prewitt said. He was talking about Harland Sanders, a Kentucky icon who founded his fried-chicken empire a few miles up the road. "We look at Hal Rogers like we look at Colonel Sanders."

In Florida, Young also had built his career as a cash conduit. During campaigns, he ran newspaper ads mapping places he had helped with earmarks.

And, where that money went, Young often saw his name appear.

The University of South Florida has received more than $340 million in earmarks through Young over the past decade. Using the money, engineers developed torpedo-like robotic "gliders" that last year detected BP oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, the university's marine science college is housed in the C.W. Bill Young Marine Science Complex in downtown St. Petersburg.

Young also secured tens of millions in federal money to replace an aging bridge in the beach town of Treasure Island that city officials said the town of 7,500 could not afford on its own.

When construction was finished, city officials opened the C.W. Bill Young Drawbridge.

"I'm against earmarks, but I like my own," said island resident John Kerry, 64, a wine consultant. On a recent day, he ate sushi on the island's beach, listening to conservative host Dennis Prager on a portable radio. "There's a difference between our earmark and others. It's not a bridge to nowhere in Alaska."

If Rogers and Young follow through on their promises to cut spending, the real test could come in the next election cycle. Can they rebrand themselves after decades in Congress? And, if they aren't funnels, what are they?

"In this current environment, the citizens know this can't continue. And if that means the Treasure Island Bridge doesn't get the right retrofit, well, that's what that means," said Kris Gionet, who organizes the Pinellas Patriots, a tea party group in Young's district.

But, sitting in a customer-less furniture store in downtown Williamsburg, Ky., appliance repairman Herschel Roaden, 82, said he thought Rogers was being "double-faced." The congressman, he said, can claim credit for cutting budgets while his name adorns government-financed projects.

Now, Roaden said, "they ought to name that stuff taxpayers' " water park, "because we're paying."

The question was put to Rogers: Should we call it the American Taxpayers' Family Entertainment Center?

Rogers didn't respond. Instead, his spokeswoman said in an e-mail that it isn't Rogers's call to make.

After all, he didn't ask for these honors in the first place.

Said spokeswoman Jennifer Hing: "These decisions were always made - and will continue to be made - on a local level."

fahrenthold@washpost.com ruckerp@washpost.com

Rucker reported from Treasure Island, Fla.

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