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New House Dean hopes to make the place ‘a bit more civil’

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Fresh out of high school, Hal Rogers walked north to Cincinnati in search of work, knowing that eastern Kentucky offered little hope for the future. In the midst of a recession, Rogers could not find work there and instead returned home with a new commitment to try to revitalize his local area.

“It really stuck with me. I wanted to try to find ways to bring industry and business to this area, to hire young people who otherwise, like me, would go elsewhere,” recalls Rogers (R-Ky .) in a recent interview.

Rep. Joyce Beatty asked Rep. Harold Rogers to put on a mask. She says he insulted her instead.

Now in his 42nd year in Congress, Rogers has dedicated his career to directing untold billions of dollars to the Appalachian corner of Kentucky, mostly during his four decades on the House Appropriations Committee. He headed the subcommittees that funded the Departments of State and Homeland Security and for six years chaired the full committee.

He recently added a new title: Dean of the House.

Following the death last month of Don Young (R-Alaska), Rogers is considered the longest-serving current member of the House, thanks to a unique tie-breaking system: the alphabet.

He and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (RN.J.) were part of the massive class elected in 1980, and since R comes before S, Rogers has the seniority advantage. The dean is not an official position within the House, unlike the pro tempore position of the Senate, which is created by the Constitution and is part of the presidential succession.

The only formal role of the Dean of the House is, every two years, on the first day of the new Congress, to take the oath of the Speaker. But in recent decades, the position has taken on an informal role of preaching the values ​​of the institution.

Two recent deans, John Dingell (D-Mich.), who retired seven years ago as the longest-serving congressman ever, and Young, the longest-serving Republican ever in the Capitol, were towering personalities.

Their resounding voices filled the cavernous chamber of the House and put political fear of God in the witnesses appearing before their committees.

Rogers, 84, will come up with a very different style. Soft-spoken and civility is his default position, and he would like to use that position to take the leadership back, however slightly, to his early days in Congress.

“On the one hand, there is a big difference in tone. We were a little more civil to each other back then,” Rogers said.

Just two and a half months ago, Rogers entered a firestorm on his own. House rules still required wearing a face mask when voting on the floor, so Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) asked Rogers to put on his mask as he rode an underground subway car to at the Capitol.

He told her to “kiss my ass” and pushed her. Beatty, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, accused him of disrespecting and bullying a black woman, demanding a public apology.

Rogers posted one – “my words weren’t okay” – and his friends point to the moment as an illustration of the right way to correct a wrong mistake at a time when junior lawmakers are trying to use controversy to promote themselves .

“I shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t have said that,” Rogers told coworkers, according to Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.).

“We all have moments that we regret, this was one for Hal. And I’m so grateful that he apologized, I’m grateful that he kind of put that behind him, and I hope that the other side will give him the chance to be the dean that I know he will be,” Womack said.

Beatty’s aides did not respond to requests for comment on the incident. After his public apology in early February, Beatty said in an interview on CNN that she accepted the apology and was “moving on.”

Partisan rancor has been particularly high in the House over the past two years, and the tension following the deadly January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed that the 2020 elections had been stolen, is still palpable. Rogers was one of 147 congressional Republicans who supported at least one objection to then-President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral vote count.

THE ATTACK The January 6 siege of the United States Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event.

Rogers came to Washington thinking the workaholic mentality would best benefit Kentucky’s 5th congressional district, delivering for one of the poorest districts in the nation in unprecedented ways.

His office estimates he has directed $800 million to local flood control projects since 1981. He recently secured $165 million for an abandoned mine revitalization program – which he created in 2016 – as well than $100 million for local transportation projects. A small business start-up foundation, established by Rogers in 1996, is credited with creating 10,000 jobs.

The opioid epidemic had its roots in his neighborhood, so he created several efforts to fight brutal addiction.

It’s part of his impact as a congressman who never expected to become dean of the House or Kentucky’s most senior.serving as a member of Congress. He doesn’t apologize when critics accuse him of directing pork to his constituents.

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“I saw working from home as a way to help the region develop economically,” he said. “It’s a very poor neighborhood.

During votes, he usually sits in the front row of the chamber, right in the well, where he will greet lawmakers from all ideological backgrounds. It also placed him at the forefront of institutional change and evolution within his own political party.

“Our class became known as the Reaganauts. We blindly followed Reagan,” he recalls his first term in the House under then-President Ronald Reagan.

But the culture was so different. Rogers was a rarity for not moving his family to Washington. Most lawmakers of both parties socialized on weekends with their children and spouses, and with far fewer flights, especially direct flights, they weren’t expected to return home as often for local engagements or to do political trips to other parts of the country.

“There was a camaraderie that was with it. So the driveway wasn’t as important as it is now,” Rogers said. “The jet changed the place. We’re not as close to each other as we used to be.”

Rogers spent his first 14 years in the minority, part of a 40-year race where some Republicans just accepted that status, but the 1994 election sparked a continuing era of mostly narrow margins in which the party opponent begins to fight every two years. to regain the majority.

About 15 years ago, Republicans became more conservative and began pushing for spending cuts, particularly an end to appropriations committee appropriations. When Republicans reclaimed a majority in 2011, incoming Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) not only officially ended assignments, he also seized an ornate desk just off the upstairs of the House which for years had been the property of the committee.

Rogers, the new president, felt the sting as he stood with a small corner office in the Capitol, chomping on cigars. His tenure as head of the committee has seen an increase in House and Senate leadership taking on key decisions that would have traditionally been settled bipartisanly by panel leaders.

“If they leave the committee alone, we can work out most of the difficulties without getting into a war,” Rogers said. Several recent government shutdowns have come after GOP leaders tried to squeeze unrelated policy endorsements into funding bills.

“Then it’s blown into a big fight,” he said. “If they left us alone, we would work things out.”

The political evolution of his state reflects what happened inside the Capitol. In 1981, Kentucky sent four Democrats and three Republicans to the House, and both senators were Democrats.

Now, Republicans hold five of the six seats in the House and the two seats in the Senate.

Trump topped 80% in the 5th District in 2016 and 2020, which by some measures makes him the second-most Republican in the nation.

Rogers recoils from the fight-fight-fight style of many young Republicans and Democrats. The new dean wants leaders to follow their approach to recent legislation aimed at combating the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including a bill passed House 420-3 and 100-0 in the Senate.

“If we bring up things that both sides have invested in and helped shape, that’s key,” he said.