Bridging K Street and Kentucky

Greg Nash

When you meet Michael Higdon, 37, it’s easy to see why he got along so well for so long with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

Higdon served as Rogers’s chief of staff for two years, until December, and was with his office for nearly a decade. 

Like a much younger Rogers without the aroma of cigars, Higdon speaks with quiet purpose, has a burning zeal for Kentucky and is all about looking for that win-win deal spending panel members are always seeking.

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For Higdon, a new job as an adviser and lobbyist-in-waiting at Cornerstone Government Affairs, is a win-win that allows him to continue helping impoverished Kentucky while using his Capitol Hill insight to help firms navigate the powerful spending panel.

Just this month, the California native was in Kentucky taking companies on a tour.

“That’s easily the best part of this gig, working more directly and more closely with businesses in considering Kentucky for relocation and growth,” he said during an interview in the quaint courtyard of Cornerstone’s office, across the street from the Library of Congress.

Higdon tells clients that Rogers is “laser focused” on helping his region.

“At the end of the day, Chairman Rogers is more interested in how he is viewed in Martin County, Ky., than how he is viewed inside the Beltway,” he said. 

In a different era, Rogers was deemed a king of “pork” for his ability to use the appropriations process to bring federal dollars to Kentucky. In the new era of budget cutting, he has earned plaudits from deficit hawks for presiding over the steepest decline in discretionary spending since World War II.

That has forced Rogers to shift strategies, including encouraging investment in the area and fighting against prescription drug abuse that is rampant in the region. 

“It is certainly more challenging on the tangible pieces,” Higdon said of the new spending environment. “He is working presently with the governor on an investment initiative to improve the region, and he has tried to work against the ‘war on coal,’ which he attributes to the Obama administration.”

Higdon said his favorite part about being chief of staff was early morning car rides, talking one-on-one with Rogers.

“His love for the commonwealth shines as he routinely shares passed-down stories of Lincoln, Henry Clay, coal caps, bluegrass and bootlegging,” he said. 

As a staffer, the most important thing is your relationship with your mentor, and it is important to maintain that after transitioning to K Street, Higdon said. 

It helps if you actually like and respect your member of Congress, he added.

“He is someone who was authentic when the camera was on and when the camera was off,” he said. “Many people, when you go back to the area, attribute their ability to go on to higher education or achieve, to the programs and efforts that Chairman Rogers created.”

Higdon moved to Washington the day after graduating from Lafayette College in 1999. 

Work for former Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.) introduced him to the appropriations process, but it was not until he found his true mentor in Rogers that Higdon flourished. 

That knack for mentoring has come in handy for Rogers during the tumultuous three years since he took over the Appropriations Committee in 2011. 

Shutdowns and debt-ceiling showdowns, while painful, have been opportunities for Rogers to impart to younger members the value of the appropriations process when the GOP controls only one house of Congress.

Higdon said Rogers has spent a lot of time with newer members, managing their expectations for deep spending cuts and arguing that entitlement programs, rather than agency budgets, are the place to make the cuts.

“That has been a significant focus of his time and energy,” he said. “Rogers has articulated from the beginning that this is one of our few levers. … The appropriations process is one of the few places where we can effect change and, in many cases, stop policies that we disagree with or rein in spending.

“He has also tried to articulate to the Tea Party crowd that, if you want to talk about solving the spending issue, you need to focus energy on the mandatory side,” he added.

The result, in Higdon’s view, is that the committee has come back from “disarray” under Rogers, from a point where it held two committee markups in 2010 to last year, when all 12 spending bills were enacted as part of an omnibus.

This year, Rogers wants to do all 12 bills individually by Oct. 1 for the first time since 1994. Higdon thinks that might be too ambitious.

“I’m believing that there will be some bills completed by the election,” he said. “The outcome of the election will fuel how the remainder gets done.”

He warned that the 2016 process would be “foreboding.”  The two-year budget deal that set up this year’s budget cap will have expired by then, leading to a return to deep sequestration cuts without congressional action.

“I think it is, frankly, the reasonable and responsible thing to do for the military’s sake is to find a way to turn off sequestration, but to do that, you have to come up with equivalent cost savings on the mandatory side of the ledger,” he said. 

If there is a lame-duck omnibus spending deal, Higdon will be poised to help his clients more at that point. Under House rules, he is banned from lobbying the committee for one year, and that year ends in December.  

Until that point, the former chief of staff can provide strategic advice and “a unique perspective on some of the things that make the chairman tick.”

Part of Higdon’s career was as the Rogers point person on homeland security, so he has worked with transportation clients such as United Airlines, BNSF and Dynamic Aviation. These clients often are concerned that the Department of Homeland Security is overly slowing the flow of commerce.

“It has been difficult for the department not to crawl back into more regulations, more control,” Higdon said. 

At Cornerstone, clients interact with a team of appropriations specialists rather than one expert, and Higdon is on the homeland, defense and appropriations team.   

He said he enjoys that about the independent 50-person firm, because it re-creates the camaraderie he enjoyed working with appropriations staffers on both sides of the aisle.

“He had the rare ability to navigate both policy and politics in order to get things done, and that resulted in a very successful track record,” said Will Smith, chief Republican clerk of the House Appropriations Committee.

Higdon says he misses the Capitol and the easy access to information it provided, and he says staff members still working there should take some time to appreciate it. 

“When it was time for me to go, I knew it. I couldn’t give the 110 percent I needed to,” he said. 

Having a second child meant needing more time on the home front. Jamie and Michael Higdon got married in 2009 and now have two children: Ryder and 6-month-old Elliette Grace.

“The Higdons are busy at home,” he joked. “The thing about being chief [of staff], it feels like you can never turn off. There is always a crisis, a press call, something erupts in the district, and you want to put attention to that.”

As for fun, Higdon has been an avid Ultimate Frisbee league player whom competitors remember for his fierce high backhand toss. 

“It is chic to complain, but I would just offer that Capitol Hill is an amazing place. Enjoy every moment of it,” he said. “People get caught up in how much it can be a grind, but it doesn’t have to be joyless.”

— This story was updated at 9:44 a.m.