Harlan, Kentucky — Republican Congressman Hal Rogers brought so many federal dollars home to eastern Kentucky’s coal country, he was crowned “Prince of Pork."
Now that spigot has been turned off, just when his district might actually need it the most.
Competition from natural gas, cheaper coal, and environmental regulations have hastened the demise of the mining industry here, already in decline. More than 6,200 eastern Kentucky miners have been laid off since July 2011. There are now fewer coal jobs here than in 1920, when the great-grandfathers of today's miners wielded shovels and pick-axes.
But sequestration—a series of across-the-board spending cuts that many Tea Party Republicans have come to embrace—and other austerity measures have accelerated the economic free fall. Unemployment benefits to laid-off miners are shrinking; fewer meals are getting delivered to homebound seniors; and there's less money to help workers retool for new jobs. Beginning Friday, food stamps will be cut by an average of $36 per month for a family of four.
It's yet another blow to struggling Appalachian mining towns like Harlan, where the mayor estimates that 15% of the town’s residents have moved out in the past year, searching for work elsewhere.
Unsold guns are piling up in pawnshops. Even the local mortician is feeling the pinch: grieving relatives are downgrading from hardwood coffins to two-gauge steel, and ordering five baskets of flowers instead of twenty or thirty. "If I don't sell to the coal people, I don't sell," one Harlan businessman explained.
Rogers has been one of the few Republicans to slam sequestration as devastating, unworkable, and unrealistic. Unless Congress decides otherwise, $109 billion in cuts will continue every year until 2021—a budget that Rogers must implement as chair of the House Appropriations Committee. But many of his Republicans colleagues have embraced the $85 billion in cuts this year as guaranteed spending cuts. It’s unlikely that budget negotiations that started this week in Congress will reverse all of them.
The incremental nature of sequestration —slow rolling, local, and scattered unevenly nationwide—has made the belt-tightening hard to measure and easy to dismiss since the cuts took effect in March. "The people that I've talked to seem to be doing well,” Missouri Rep. Billy Long said in April. “In fact, when I got out in restaurants here in town, people come up to me. They want to see more sequestration, not less.”
Even some Democrats believe the White House overhyped the cuts when it made dire predictions about their impact, some of which didn't pan out. "I think they probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible. The lines in the airports aren’t long, the world hasn’t changed overnight,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
But Harlan sees long lines. They are in the unemployment office, filled with out-of-work miners chasing any rumor of jobs left to be had. A TV in the waiting area explains how federal cuts have chipped away at the safety net most had hoped they would never need.
"Sequestration…What does that mean for you? Your Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits that begin on or after March 31, 2013 must be reduced 10.7% for each week of unemployment through September 2013."
"Sequestration is a terrible way to do business. I've said it since day one. It slices the good with the bad, and removes the duty of Congress to ensure vital programs, like Head Start and various grant programs receive adequate support," Rogers told MSNBC. "Couple those deep cuts with the rapid loss of coal mining jobs in eastern Kentucky and we're now facing an economic superstorm."
For Donnie Reeves, 40, each passing week of unemployment means less security. He lost his mining job in March, just weeks before his wife Tiffanie lost her job as a teaching assistant. "After December, it's no more unemployment, no more nothing," he said in August.
"I would have to work a minimum of three jobs, each 40 hours a week at minimum wage. That's to keep the lights on. No groceries, no gas," said Donnie, who made $70,000 in his best year.
Donnie spent the summer retraining for a factory job through an emergency federal program spared—this time—from sequestration’s axe. Tiffanie found a job helping unemployed Kentuckians like her husband find work.
But with two teenage kids and their hometown’s economy in tatters, the Reeves know that their future may lie outside Harlan, leaving behind a family rooted here for more than 120 years.
"Tiff," he told her last spring, when they were first considering the idea, "we're giving up."
For years, Kentucky politicians found funds to cushion the slow death of coal. And no one was better at it than Rogers, chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee.
Since 1981, Rogers has requested more than $460 million in earmarks for the fifth district. All across eastern Kentucky, there are tributes to his largesse. Just a few hours east of Harlan, there’s the Hal Rogers Appalachian Recovery Center for drug addicts; to the west, the water slides at the Hal Rogers Family Entertainment Center. And in between, the Daniel Boone National Forest, honoring the beloved frontiersman whose name nonetheless got booted off the road now called the “Hal Rogers Parkway.”
To Rogers’s defenders, the generous projects aimed to combat the “Appalachia problem”—generational poverty, exploitation, and underdevelopment that's kept coal country on the margins of prosperity, poor people living in a resource-rich land, according to historian Ron Eller. The unemployment rate in Rogers’s fifth district is the highest in Kentucky, hitting 16% in three counties this August. That's in an area where the poverty rate is already 27.5%, rising to 34% in families with children under 18.
"There's no question that federal funding has been vital to progress in southern and eastern Kentucky," Rogers told MSNBC, citing projects to expand sewer lines, invest in infrastructure, and combat drug abuse.
Just this summer, Rogers was celebrating some of the fruits of his labor.
At the Harlan Girls and Boys Club in August, he praised Appalachia HIDTA, the anti-drug office he created with earmarked money "to spread the word about the ever-present dangers of marijuana." Another pet project was in evidence as well—Eastern Kentucky PRIDE, an environmental cleanup group run by a former Rogers staffer.
Both groups have been the recipients of millions in federal money, thanks to Rogers. He also secured earmarks for the infamous I-66 "road to nowhere,” which still hasn’t been finished, and a $4 million homeland security contract for a company that hired his own son.
It’s precisely these kinds of projects that drove Tea Partiers to demand a ban on earmarks and more spending cuts when the GOP took over the House in 2010.
Lobbying against establishment Republicans like Rogers, Tea Party freshmen pushed Congress to embrace a $2.1 trillion deficit deal in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The law brought $900 billion in upfront cuts by imposing spending caps for the next decade. It also created a bipartisan "supercommitee" tasked with creating a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction deal by the end of 2011. But the supercommittee failed when Republicans refused to budge on revenue increases that Democrats demanded, triggering sequestration’s automatic, across-the-board cuts.
The irony is that the cuts under sequestration, that great fiscal equalizer, are hitting both the best and worst of the spending that Rogers has supported, whether it's pure pork or critical social services.
The fifth district's economic woes make it clear that hundreds of millions in specially designated funds haven't been enough to wean this place away from the twin pillars of coal and government aid.
That's been deeply frustrating to eastern Kentucky residents who've seen lawmakers like Rogers bring in huge-dollar projects while economic opportunities have evaporated. "I'm getting the hell out of Harlan County. Ain't nothing here," one jobless miner said, sitting in the town's unemployment office. "What pisses me off—the politicians, they have millions of dollars pumped through here in the last 50 years.
Federal grants for many of Rogers’s pet projects haven’t been renewed since earmarks died and austerity was reborn. But money has also dried up for Meals on Wheels, which is delivering 500 fewer lunches every month in Harlan County under sequestration, according to one employee. The cuts have squeezed Title I education funding to the local high school, which laid off teachers this summer. Fewer homebound seniors are getting help to pay their bills and do their laundry.
Like other coal-state lawmakers, Rogers believes the first priority is to stop Obama’s “war on coal,” lobbying against regulations like the EPA’s new carbon rules for power plants. Though the president isn’t likely to budge on his climate regulations, he promised in June to "give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by the transition" to cleaner energy. But so far, little extra help has arrived in eastern Kentucky.
Even environmentalists who've rallied for the end of coal acknowledge that the human cost of the transition has been too high. "I find it unconscionable that these areas that have powered our rise to the greatest economy in the world are being left behind," said Matt Wasson, director of programs at Appalachian Voices.
Rogers has found some common cause with Democrats by trying to bring the bacon home again—at least a slice of it. Together with Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, Rogers backed a $5.2 million emergency federal grant for retraining laid-off miners. And he is one of the few Republicans to push back against his own party on sequestration and the GOP’s insistence on low spending levels even if the cuts are reversed.
“I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration—and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts—must be brought to an end," he said in July after House Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for the very cuts they had originally agreed to make to transportation and housing, scuttling his committee’s spending bill.
Not all Republicans agree—even those representing Kentucky. At an August town hall in Harlan, Sen. Rand Paul hadn't even heard of the $5.2 million retraining program that helped Donnie Reeves.
"It's not about retraining—it's about cutting the deficit," Paul said. "We should spend what money comes in."
At the event, one resident asked Paul how sequestration would affect his employer, the Center for Independent Living, which uses federal funds to help elderly and disabled residents take care of themselves.
"Our government is literally littered with waste," Paul replied.
Andrew Saylor, who'd posed the question, was incredulous. "I'm in charge of accounting, and we account for every damn thing," he replied. Paul moved onto the next question.
Donnie didn’t want to accept the money at first. "It hurts your pride."
Then Tiffanie laid out two years of tax returns. "This is what we paid in," she said, showing her husband what he paid in after working 13-hour shifts.
He signed up for unemployment within a week. "It's a joke, but it helps," he explained. But sequestration would still cut his federal benefits if he didn’t find a job by October—extra help that’s going to end for everyone come January.
Donnie doesn’t romanticize the job he’s lost. Working on the mountainside, he and the other miners ran enormous, earth-smashing machines–the kind that split one coworker in half and took off another's head. They all ragged on each other just to keep their nerves in check.
"Once you see somebody get killed two or three times, you find the Lord real fast," he said.
But Donnie believes he’s luckier than some other miners—the guys with diabetes, arthritis, and nerve pain who are too old to be retrained, too young for Social Security. ("Never tell your age—never, ever," a career counselor told two jobless 50-somethings in Harlan.)
Sequestration isn’t making that transition easier. Already, it’s slashed federal support to Harlan’s Workforce Investment Program by 16%. That money could have paid for travel, equipment, and tuition for Harlan's unemployed who want to retool for another profession. But it won’t be coming back unless Congress decides otherwise.
Donnie’s no Obama fan, but he doesn't think it's worth cutting what little Washington is doing to help. "Say they cut that [retraining] program down. A guy gets laid off today—we can help him write a resume but can't do anything else. It's useless."
In late September, he saw that investment pay off: After more than six months of searching, he landed a job at a factory doing industrial maintenance, which he trained for over the summer with government assistance. It’s three hours away, which means living apart from his family until they move to Georgetown, Kentucky—but it’s a job.
Rogers says he’s committed to finding a future for his district, announcing a summit with Gov. Beshear to find new solutions to Appalachia’s economic woes—a promise that Kentucky politicians have made for decades.
But Harlan is still waiting for its own backup plan. Past boarded-up stores, pawnshops, and an abandoned tattoo parlor, a new pizza parlor sells alcohol and memories. The walls of Portal are lined with maps of old coal camps and black-and-white photos of miners.
Every night, it plays the same song to close:
In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky.
That's the place where I trace my bloodline.
And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone.
You will never leave Harlan alive.