In a speech that is almost certain to stoke speculation he is running for House speaker, Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling slammed Washington insiders and special interests during an address at the Heritage Foundation Tuesday.
Less than two hours after the Heritage Foundation suffered one of its harshest congressional rebukes ever — more representatives broke from the advice of Heritage Action than ever before, with only four Republicans voting against a water resources bill — Hensarling came to Heritage's Massachusetts Avenue offices to praise the foundation and condemn a boogeyman called Washington, D.C.
The Texas Republican did nothing to allay the concerns of K Street or Wall Street that he won’t work with special interests to protect some of Washington’s favorite carve-outs. In fact, Hensarling consistently demonized the “Washington insider economy.” He criticized tax policies: “Today, I call upon every Republican in Congress to agree to scrap the code.”
He criticized GOP leadership: “Let’s not just say we’re for fundamental tax reform; let’s actually vote on it.”
He criticized farm subsidies: “The beneficiaries of these programs like to hide behind the image of the sainted, iconic, family farmer.”
He criticized sugar subsidies: “Isn’t it embarrassing that baked into every American apple pie is Soviet-style sugar.”
He criticized the farm bill: “Let’s make the next farm bill the last farm bill.”
He criticized earmarks: “Earmarks epitomize the Washington insider economy.”
He criticized Wall Street: “Few Americans have ever been interested in occupying Wall Street; they’re just tired of bailing it out.”
And he criticized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: “It’s time for the Republican Party to live up to its pledge to end the reign of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
But Hensarling reserved special ire for the Export-Import Bank.
While Hensarling admitted that he doesn’t much care for the term “crony capitalism” — he said it suggests that capitalism is corrupt when the American free enterprise system is actually “the most fair and most moral economic system ever devised by the mind of man” — the Texas Republican repeatedly characterized the Ex-Im Bank as cronyism, and he said the bank's job-creation claims were “dubious, at best.”
Supporters say the bank supports American jobs by financing U.S. exports, but conservatives say the credit agency's loans amount to corporate welfare.
“Today I call upon every Republican in Congress to simply let Ex-Im expire,” Hensarling said. “Let the American taxpayer exit Ex-Im.”
Overall, Hensarling’s speech was peppered with anecdotes about how Washington was failing the rest of the country.
He began the speech by recounting a story from seven years ago, when his daughter was five and he was stuck in Washington for some weekend votes. When he called his daughter to explain that he wouldn’t be coming home that weekend, she asked a question, according to Hensarling: “’Daddy, is Washington, D.C., part of America?”
He frequently returned to this theme, painting the city as otherworldly.
He also told of his humble beginnings as a chicken farmer. His first job was to clean out the chicken houses. “Incidentally, wonderful training for serving in Congress,” Hensarling said to an enthusiastic Heritage crowd.
That Hensarling spoke at the Heritage Foundation is news in its own right. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has made no qualms about his increasing frustration with Heritage, and for Hensarling, who was once the GOP Conference chairman but stepped down to take the gavel of Financial Services, speaking at Heritage while they are in an awkward battle with House leadership may be seen as a soft rebuke of Boehner.
Hensarling is commonly thought to be one of the few Republicans who could challenge Boehner for the speaker's gavel, or Majority Leader Eric Cantor, if Boehner were to retire.
During a brief question-and-answer session after his roughly 40-minute speech, CQ Roll Call asked Hensarling if he were considering “at all” running for speaker.
“I was happy to see Johnny Manziel drafted by the Cleveland … ” Hensarling said, trailing off as nervous laughter from the crowd interrupted him. “Listen: I’m flattered when people ask the question. I want — it’s not something I’ve aspired to, it’s not something I’m thinking about, it’s not something I’m working on. I see no reason whatsoever why it’s in the interest of the Republican Party or the conservative movement to really be thinking about leadership races.”
Hensarling continued, “No, I haven’t been Shermanesque,” referring to Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman who definitively said he would never run for president. “Again, I’m not sure there’s any opportunity I want to close.”
“I just get up in the morning trying to figure out what I can to do to make a difference, to make a difference for the cause of freedom,” Hensarling said.