In the Weeds w/ Mike Rogers

In the Weeds w/ Mike Rogers

This week’s guest is Congressman Mike Rogers of Alabama’s 3rd District. That district runs along the eastern border of the state from Cherokee County to the north all the way down past Auburn to Russell County to the South.

He was first elected to Congress back in 2002 to take the place of a guy named Bob Riley, who was leaving Congress to run for Governor. That makes Mr. Rogers Alabama’s second longest serving member in the House.

For as long as I’ve been following him, Rogers has always been engaged on military and agriculture issues. He’s been on both the Agriculture Committee and the House Armed Services Committee pretty much the whole time he’s been in Washington, with a few exceptions that he gets into some in our discussion. That makes sense because his district is home to the Anniston Army Depot, where they produce and repair tanks and other ground combat vehicles. They actually just got a new contract at the Depot that will be a big deal for the 3,600 workers there. The 3rd district is also highly agricultural, which makes the Farm Bill a priority for Rogers. One thing I found interesting about our discussion was how candid he was about the history of Farm Bill negotiations, up to and including this most recent one.

Mr. Rogers is now the Ranking Member on the House Homeland Security Committee. That means he’s the top Republican and would have been Chairman had the Republicans kept the House. That spot puts him in a unique position of negotiating how Congress deals with one of the more sensitive issues of late, the Russian attempts to interfere with our elections. He spoke about that issue at length, and I was a bit surprised at how much bi-partisan cooperation there seemed to be on it.

But the biggest issue for Mr. Rogers is the Space Force. In fact, he might be the most engaged Member of Congress on the issue. When you hear Space Force, you might think of a highly caricatured campaign idea from Donald Trump last election. But the effort to create a military branch or department dedicated to space activity has been around for a while. It’s actually really timely right now because the last several weeks, Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has been testifying to congressional appropriators about the immediate and long term costs of creating a Space Force. It’s fair to say that much of Congress remains skeptical on creating a Space Force within the Air Force. In fact, a House Defense Appropriations draft markup this week included funding to continue “studying” the Space Force, which is Congressionalese for not gonna happen this year.  You may see a lot more news about that line item in the coming days and weeks.

But the Pentagon argues it’s an essential need. The United States used to not have any competition for dominance in space. Now, we have competition in Russia and China. That’s not to say they are winning, but they are trying, and the military wants more tools to defend that frontier. Congressman Rogers does a good job of explaining what the idea really is, why it is necessary, and how politics impacted the whole thing.

I really appreciated the very substantive discussion, and I hope you enjoy it.

Oh, the audio is picking up right as we are talking about the issue of immigration and getting into his work on Homeland Security. I spared you the pleasantries and small talk at the beginning. You’re welcome.

Todd C. Stacy: … his big theme, really, is immigration. That means Homeland Security. You’re now Ranking Member.  I assume that means you would have been Chairman had the Republicans maintained the majority, but it also means you will be Chairman if things work out in 2020.

Congressman Mike Rogers: Right.

TCS: So how’s that going? Have yall started work yet on Homeland?

MR: Yeah. I’m going to be meeting with Chairman Thompson this week about what we’re going to be doing going forward. We’ve already gotten signals from the majority side as to what they intend to focus on from the first six months. They’re going to spend a lot of time on election security. They are still trying to promote this theme of this message that the only way Donald Trump was elected President 2016 was Russian interference – although, there is zero evidence of any interference with the election itself. And that’s not me, that’s DOJ that has done a complete investigation and came back with that result.

However, there was $20 million spent by the Russians on disinformation through social media. But there’s nothing new about that. They’ve been doing that all over the world for decades in all sorts of countries. Plus, $20 million in social media was a drop in the bucket in an over a billion dollar presidential campaign. So that did not decide the election in any way. However, I am an agreement with the Democrat majority that we have cyber vulnerabilities that we have to protect against in the future. And we do need to spend a good amount of time talking about how can we protect  our election systems from tampering because we know there are people that bad actors that want to tamper with election results. So you’re going to see us spend a good bit of time on election security in the Homeland Security Committee. Border Security is going to be the one that gets most of the attention just because of the president’s focus on a border barrier.

And they’ve spent a good bit of time in the first six months talking about Puerto Rico recovery. They’re still trying to, again, promote this theme that that president is a racist and the only reason that he didn’t his administration didn’t do a better job in Puerto Rico recovery was, his racist views, when in fact, FEMA did an outstanding job of getting supplies to Puerto Rico. The problem we had was, once you got there, before the hurricane, the infrastructure was decayed and fragile, and after the hurricane, you couldn’t get supplies from the ports inland. There’s just no infrastructure in place. So we’ll spend time focused on that. After the first six months, there’s no telling where it will go.

TCS: What’s the biggest difference being in the minority, between the committee and just in general?

MR: We’re not driving the bus. We’re riding in the bus. I like driving the bus.

(laughter)

TCS: But only you and Mr. Aderholt, as far as the House, have actually served the minority before. So have y’all had to kind of catch the other younger members up?  \

MR: Well, we’ve tried to warn them or prepare them, because you can’t prepare somebody who doesn’t know. And, you know, the fact is over 70% of the Republican conference has been here since 2010 elections. They’ve never known anything but the majority. As you know, I came here in the 2002 elections. So, I was here for four years in the majority, then four years in the minority, then eight years back in the majority. We tried to prepare for it, but you can’t.  Last night I was hearing more comments and grumblings from some of the younger guys, and it’s going to probably be three months before they finally kind of get through the changes in there.

You know, a lot of them are angry right now. They’re just now starting to get angry. And then they’ll get depressed. But then you’ll start thinking about how do we fight our way back, because that’s what the mission is right now. We want to try to resist bad government, and look for ways that we can work with them on good government. But, our main goal is to get the majority back so that we’re driving the bus again, so we can start driving policy instead of trying to shape the Democrats’ policy into being more acceptable. We want to be driving our policy.

TCS: Well, speaking of that, one of the policies you’ve been really involved in the Space Force. Where does that stand? And I know the President made some announcements, but from a practical standpoint, where are we on that?

MR: Well, to give the background, the idea for a spaceport came out of my subcommittee.  I chaired the Strategic Forces Subcommittee on Armed Services for the last six years. We have jurisdiction over nuclear weapons missile defense in space. And when we talk about space, we’re not talking about Star Trek, or jets where people go up into space and explore. That’s NASA. We’re talking about satellites that we use for command and control of our nuclear weapons, that guide our missile systems, that we use for positioning troops, a whole host of communications purposes. And we become very dependent on (satelites) to fight and win wars. Well, the Chinese and Russians have figured that out and so they started trying to find a way to make our satellites vulnerable to their attacks so they could advantage us. And, unfortunately, in the last few years, they have become our peers in space where we’ve always been dominant. So, we’ve decided in the Armed Services Committee, the only way to fix this was to pull the space mission, which is mostly in the Air Force right now, out of the Air Force, and then a little bit out of the Navy and the Army, and put it all in its own service with its own budget, its own mission, its own educational system, culture – everything. And we passed it out of the House, not just the subcommittee but the full Armed Services Committee and the full House, last year to set up a separate space service.

TCS: NDAA?

MR: Yes. It was called the Space Corps at the time. And I used the term corps when we developed it for this purpose: I wanted people to understand this was not new. We had done the same thing in the Department of the Navy, where we had the Navy and the Marine Corps, two services in one department.

TCS: Air Force…

MR: We’re going to have the Air Force and the Space Force in one Department of the Air Force. So that’s why we use the term corps.But the President wanted to change it to Space Force once he found out about it.

Anyway, the Senate felt like we were going real fast. They said, well, let’s get the Pentagon to tell us whether or not they need it. So the way we ended last year’s NDAA was with a requirement that the Pentagon study this for six months and give us a report. Well, that report came back in September of last year saying, we agree, that we looked at it, there’s no way to fix this in the Air Force. We need a separate service. So Secretary Shanahan and the Defense Department are presenting to – they’ve already presented to the House staff this week – House staff, the House chairman and Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee this week. They’re presenting to the Senate Armed Services chairman and Ranking Member this week and staff next week what their proposals are for this year’s NDAA to finalize the standing up of Space Force. It’s got bi-partisan support, so we fully expect it to happen this year.

TCS: I was going to ask, you know, sometimes it’s anything that the President supports, you’re going to see some (opposition). But, Democrats are on board with this?

MR:  They are.  This came out of the subcommittee last year unanimously; full committee almost unanimously. And the fact is, we can’t talk about it publicly, but we’ve all been briefed in the skiff on what’s going on with Russia and China. This is not partisan. This is protecting our country. Now, there was a point last year where it became partisan and that’s after President Trump and announced that he wanted this done. His campaign, unfortunately, got excited and started issuing bumper stickers and campaign paraphernalia with “Trump’s Space Force.” Well, that did set Democrats off.

TCS: That’ll do it.

MR: Yeah. So, what a lot of them campaigned against was Trump’s space force. Well, initially, when the Department of Defense was fashioning this, they were going to set up a whole new Department of Space. Now we had the Department of the Navy, the Army Department, Air Force, they were going to have a Department of the Space Force. And that’s what the Democrats hung their hat against, that we don’t need a new bureaucracy. I agree with them. And they have decided to trash that, then they’re going to keep the Space Force in the Department of the Air Force, and Democrats are happy again. So they campaigned against the Trump Space Force, which was going to be a new department. That’s gone and it’s back to the original plan now, and they’re on board again.

TCS: Switching gears to another committee, you’re Alabama’s only member on Agriculture. OR, or you  have been.

MR: Yeah, have been. me and Frank Lucas of Oklahoma had to take a leave of absence to make room for all the freshmen this year.

TCS: Oh, I see.

MR: That happened one other time back in 2010. When we took the majority, we had 89 freshmen, I had to take a leave for that term. But, my plan is to go back on in two years when these freshmen move on to their next assignment.

TCS: Well, the Farm Bill is done. I mean, you got the Farm Bill done and I’m I’m guessing it won’t start up in earnest for another couple years.

MR: That’s what Frank and I are both telling our constituents is that, by the time we get to the Farm Bill, hopefully we’ll both be back on there,  because I’ve been oon there since I got in Congress 2002.

TCS: Well, why is that important? Walk me through it.  I know Farm Bill was a year ago, but walk through, how that process went, what your involvement was, and what the ultimate result was, including working with the administration.

MR: Well, it was a – they’re all difficult. This was my third Farm Bill, and it’s incredibly painful passing a Farm Bill. Not in committee – that’s easy, because we all care about agriculture. But, once you get out of committee, you’ve got to get the votes on the House Floor and half people in the Congress don’t care about agriculture because they don’t have agriculture and the districts. In fact, more than half.  It’s about cutting deals. And the deal has always been since 1965 we have paired food stamps with the farm programs to get them passed because Republicans aren’t big on voting for food stamps and Democrats don’t want to vote farm programs. So they started pairing those in 65, and it was 50-50 food stamps and farm programs. The last two farm bills have been 80% food stamps and 20% farm programs. That’s what it took to get them passed. This was no different. However, this time we had an added problem in that we wanted to try to wean people off food stamps. So we wanted a requirement – we were still in the majority – that said, if you get food stamps, you’ve got to either be working 20 hours a week. And if you don’t have a job, we will help you find one for 20 hours a week, or you gotta go to school 20 hours a week to train for a job and we’ll pay for it. But, you’ve got to do something for at least 20 hours a week. You can’t sit home and draw your food stamps. The Democrats went nuts,  just absolutely nuts over it. And in the end, we didn’t get it because while we controlled the House and the Senate, the Senate Republican chairman didn’t want the work requirement. He didn’t want to fool with it. So, we wound up not getting the work requirement. However, the one good news about that work requirement is this: there’s always been a watered down work requirement in food stamps. But, there’s also the option for each state to get a waiver. Of course, every state asked for the waiver. They don’t want to fool with implementing a work requirement. Well, Sonny Purdue, the current Agriculture Secretary, has pledged to us that he will not be granting waivers – that states are going to have to implement the existing work requirement. So, we figured that’s at least a step in the right direction to wean people off food stamps by getting them trained up for jobs where they can pay for their food.

But, there were good things in his Farm Bill that we cared a lot about. One of the concerns that we’ve had is that there’s a generational problem with young people who don’t go in agriculture. It’s a risky business with thin margins and a lot of debt. So we’ve put money in there for help with educational opportunities, scholarship opportunities to get younger people to train to be smart farmers in the future and money for loan programs for young farmers.

One of the big things that I’m excited about was we put a lot of money in there for broadband for rural communities. And that’s something I’m urging county commissions and city councils in rural areas throughout Alabama to be calling the USDA district director and Alabama and saying, “How do I apply for that rural broadband?”  Because that is what you have to have to be in business in America, access to the internet. Farmers, businesses, they got to be able to have it. And not just that, you’ve got to be able to, in order to compete in agriculture now, get into what they call smart farming or precision farming. Getting back to satellites, a lot of people don’t know this, but most bigger farmers, they don’t have people in those tractors. They’re being guided by satellites, when they when they plow the fields and plant seeds and such. And that’s the future. We will want to get this technology out in rural Alabama. So hopefully people will embrace this opportunity.

TCS: You mentioned local officials. It’s been my observation that you tend to spend a lot more time with the (state) Legislature I mean, you were a member of the Legislature, so maybe that makes sense. I get asked so many times “Hey, what’s going to happen? Is Alabama going to lose a congressional seat?”  It comes up almost everywhere I go because people just figure that I know somehow, which nobody does. But, should that happen… The last time we had a census, the last time we had redistricting, your relationships probably paid off. You had such good relationships in the State House from being a former member. Do you think that might pay off this next time around?

MR: Yeah. Well, those are my buddies. I was down there for eight years and had great friendships, not only would legislators but the member of lobbying community, and I’ve kept all of those warm for years. Primarily because they’re my friends and I want to keep them warm. Secondly, they’re in the same world and I’m in, the same business world, and we have a lot in common. But it did pay off huge dividends. The last census, they allowed us to draw our own districts and they passed them the way we drew them.

I don’t know what’s going to happen this time. I hope the same pattern will be followed. But ,what will happen is, if we do lose a district, obviously the state legislature finally decides what those six districts are going to look like. It is my hope that this time they will give us a chance to work it out among ourselves up here. But they’ll be the final arbiters of that.

TCS: Well, that’s really all I had. Is there anything else you want to add?

MR: Just remind people that, you know, when folks see all the fussing up here, they just need to be mindful of that’s what we’re supposed to do. You know, this point is not supposed to get along. It’s always been this way, particularly when you deal with big issues. There’s nothing new happening in this town. It may be a 50-50 country, but it’s always been a lot of fussin’ going on up here when we’re dealing with big issues, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So, we’ll be okay.

TCS: All right. Well, that’s very nice. Thank you for your time.

MR: Enjoyed it.