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Rep. Harold Rogers brings influence to appropriations role

The Kentucky Republican focused on space exploration and the fight against opioids as chairman of House spending subcommittee

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-K.Y., right, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., are seen outside a House Republican Steering Committee meeting in January.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-K.Y., right, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., are seen outside a House Republican Steering Committee meeting in January. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden kicked off the fiscal 2024 appropriations process last week with a budget request that renewed a proposal to eliminate funding for the construction of a new federal prison in eastern Kentucky.

But that project is in the district of Republican Rep. Harold Rogers, a longtime influential appropriator who is now chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science panel, which oversees funding levels for the Justice Department.

While Rogers has a track record of backing funding for space exploration and the fight against opioids, the onetime chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee also has been called the “Prince of Pork” for earmark spending that goes to his home state.

His spot now gives him great sway over the title that had $84.2 billion in fiscal 2023 and includes funding for the Commerce and Justice departments as well as NASA and the National Science Foundation, at a time when fellow Republicans are looking to cut government spending.

“When he was chairman, he had a favorite saying whenever we would gather on occasion to talk about appropriation bills that we were marking up,” said Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican on the Appropriations Committee. “And that is: ‘Look, I want you guys, each of you individually, to consult your conscience, and then vote yes.’”

Rogers has been defending the Kentucky prison project funding since at least 2017, when he told the attorney general at a hearing that Congress decided to fund the project, “and we expect it to be carried out.”

The most recent Biden budget proposal calls for the canceling of $934.9 million in funding for new construction projects under the Bureau of Prisons, which includes funding for the eastern Kentucky project, according to the Justice Department.

Opioids focus

Rogers, in an interview earlier this year with CQ Roll Call, pointed to the nation’s struggles with fentanyl and said he’ll be paying close attention to Justice Department funding when it comes to combating drugs.

More than two decades ago, Rogers outlined the burgeoning signs of a crisis during a subcommittee hearing. People were overdosing on oxycodone, he said, and eastern Kentucky was facing an epidemic of OxyContin misuse.

“This substance is running rampant through the small rural communities of Appalachia, wreaking havoc on the adolescent population,” Rogers said, according to a transcript of the 2001 hearing. “In my 20 years of service in this spot and 11 years before that as a DA in Kentucky, I’ve never seen the devastating effect of one substance on people, particularly young people.”

A lot of people did not realize the urgency of Rogers’ warnings years ago, said Nancy Hale, president and CEO of Operation UNITE, a nonprofit that works on drug issues and serves parts of Kentucky.

“People have referred to him often as the Paul Revere of the opioid crisis, the opioid epidemic,” Hale said. “And he was saying, ‘Look, folks, we’ve got a problem. Oxycontin is not what we were told it was going to be.’”

In 2003, Rogers launched Operation UNITE in response to articles in a local newspaper, which detailed the effect of the opioid crisis on Kentucky communities.

The nonprofit was also behind the creation of The Rx and Illicit Drug Summit, which nowadays attracts officials from across the country and has featured high-profile speakers, including former President Donald Trump.

Womack said a lot of Rogers’ energy on the issue is driven by the profound impact illegal drugs have had on his district in Kentucky.

“So from a Commerce-Justice-Science standpoint, you can expect — just as he did with Labor, Health, and Human Services, as he did as an overall chairman — that’s going to be a big focus of his for sure,” Womack said.

NASA booster

Rogers also brings to the subcommittee a long-standing interest in outer space.

Last month, Rogers met with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the former U.S. senator from Florida, in one of his first meetings as head of the subcommittee, according to a social media post.

Rogers invited Nelson “to visit his home district where one of NASA’s Deep Space Network affiliate satellites is located at Morehead State University in Kentucky,” the post said.

At a hearing in 2017, Rogers said he’s been a “space nut” since he was a teenager and pointed to the significance of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik.

“I quit a job in a radio station in North Carolina and enrolled in physics at the University of Kentucky, aiming for Cape Canaveral,” Rogers said at the hearing, adding that he “got bored with the math” and “switched off to something else.”

“NASA is more than a space-launching agency. NASA is an inspiration maker, a dream realizer,” he said at the 2017 hearing. “The space race with the Soviets and the race to the moon energized, inspired, excited the world, but especially here at home.”

Potential cuts

Rogers is heading the subcommittee as some House Republicans push to cut spending and uncertainty persists over how Washington will raise the debt limit.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he wants to raise the debt ceiling in a “responsible” manner but “not continue this runaway spending.”

Rogers’ fellow lawmakers say he will be well served by his decades of experience, which have now made him the dean of the House.

“I’m sure nobody will be losing any sleep at night about how that committee is run with the dean of the House running it,” Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei said.

Rogers said efforts to cut spending will at the very least make it tough to put together and pass a bill. But asked if there’s any areas in the CJS portion that should be cut, he said lawmakers will “be looking to see what we have to do.”

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