The new dean of the House hopes to make the place ‘a bit more civil’

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Fresh out of high school, Harold Rogers trekked north to Cincinnati searching for work, knowing that eastern Kentucky offered little hope for the future. Amid a recession, Rogers couldn’t find work there and instead headed home with a new commitment to trying to revitalize his local region.

“That left a real mark on me. I wanted to try to find ways to bring industry and business to that area, to hire young people who otherwise would, like me, shift off to somewhere else,” Rogers recalled 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 (R-Ky.) has dedicated his career to steering untold billions of dollars into the Appalachian corner of Kentucky, mostly through his four-decade run on the House Appropriations Committee. He has run the subcommittees that funded the Departments of State and Homeland Security and for six years chaired the full committee.

He has recently added a new title: dean of the House.

Following the death last month of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), Rogers is considered the longest-serving current member in the House, through a unique tiebreaking system: the alphabet.

He and Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) were part of the massive class elected in 1980, and as R comes before S, Rogers has the edge on seniority. The dean is not an official position inside the House, unlike the Senate’s pro tempore post, which is created by the Constitution and falls in the line of presidential succession.

The House dean’s only formal role is, every two years on the first day of the new Congress, to swear in 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 member of Congress ever, and Young, the longest-serving Republican ever in the Capitol, were towering figures.

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

Rogers, 84, will offer a very different style. Soft-spoken and courteous serve as his default position, and he would like to use this post to nudge leaders back even slightly to his earliest days in Congress.

“For one thing, there’s a big difference in tone. We were a bit more civil toward each other back then,” Rogers said.

Just two and half months ago, Rogers walked into a firestorm of his own making. House rules still required wearing a mask while voting on the floor, so Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) asked Rogers to put on his mask as he got onto an underground subway car to the Capitol.

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

Rogers issued one — “my words were not acceptable” — and his friends point to the moment as an illustration of the right way to fix a bad mistake in an era when junior lawmakers try to use controversy to promote themselves.

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

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

Aides to Beatty did not respond to requests for comment about 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 especially high in the House during the last couple of years, and the tension following the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen, is still palpable. Rogers was one of 147 congressional Republicans who supported at least one objection to counting President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral votes.

THE ATTACK The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event.

Rogers came to Washington believing the workhorse 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 that he has steered $800 million to local flood-control projects since 1981. He recently secured $165 million for an abandoned mines revitalization program — which he created in 2016 — along with $100 million for local transportation projects. A small-business start-up foundation, created by Rogers in 1996, is credited with launching 10,000 jobs.

The opioid epidemic had its roots in his district, so he created several efforts to combat the brutal addiction.

That’s a sliver of his impact as a congressman who never expected to become the dean of the House or Kentucky’s longest-serving congressman. He is unapologetic when critics accuse him of steering pork to his constituents.

Earmarks are back and members in both parties are loving them

“I saw the job down home as a way to economically help the region grow some,” he said. “It’s a very poor area.”

During votes, he customarily sits in the front row of the chamber, right in the well, where he will greet lawmakers from all ideological corners. It has also given him a front-row seat to the change in the institution and to the evolution inside his own political party.

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

But the culture was so different. Rogers was a rarity for not moving his family to Washington. Most lawmakers from both parties would socialize on weekends with their children and spouses, and with far fewer flights, especially direct flights, they were not expected to fly home as often for local commitments or take political trips to other parts of the nation.

“There was a camaraderie that was with that. So the aisle was not as important as it is now,” Rogers said. “The jet airplane changed the place. We’re not as close to each other as we had been.”

Rogers spent his first 14 years in the minority, part of a 40-year run where some Republicans just accepted that status, but the 1994 elections set in motion an ongoing era of mostly narrow margins in which the opposing side starts off every two years fighting to win back the majority.

About 15 years ago, Republicans grew more conservative and started calling for spending cuts, particularly an end to earmarks from the Appropriations Committee. When Republicans won back the majority in 2011, the new speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), didn’t just officially end earmarks, he also seized an ornate office just off the House floor that for years had been committee property.

Rogers, the new chairman, felt the sting as he was left with a tiny corner office in the Capitol, chomping on cigars. His tenure running the committee saw a rise in House and Senate leadership taking over key decisions that would have traditionally been settled in bipartisan fashion by the panel’s leaders.

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

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

His state’s political evolution mirrors what’s 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 six House seats and both Senate seats.

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

Rogers recoils from the fight-fight-fight style of many younger Republicans and Democrats. The new dean wants leaders to follow their approach to recent legislation toward combating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including one bill that passed the House 420-3 and 100-0 in the Senate.

“If we bring up things that both sides have an investment in and have helped formulate, that’s the key,” he said.