Hensarling Shifts to Low Profile

Earmark Hawk Turns His Focus to Bailouts

Posted July 2, 2009 at 6:10pm

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the former chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, may no longer be at the center of House spending wars, but since leaving leadership, the conservative Texan has established himself as one of the GOP’s chief watchdogs of the federal government’s corporate bailouts.

After turning over the reins of the RSC to Rep. Tom Price (Ga.) in January, Hensarling said he was initially worried he would miss the hustle of the chairman’s post.

But as ranking member of the Financial Services Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit and the only Member of Congress on the panel charged with overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Hensarling has had few free moments to pine for his past leadership role.

“I didn’t really go through withdrawal symptoms,— Hensarling told Roll Call during a recent interview. “There’s been so much coming our way with the Financial Services Committee, and a lot of it fairly … complicated, complex kind of stuff. So I didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit around and twiddle my thumbs and think, Boy, it was great to be the titular head of the conservative movement in the House.’—

Hensarling spent his tenure as RSC chairman as a thorn in the side of other House GOP leaders and vigorously criticized the Conference’s inability to commit to comprehensive earmark reform.

Last fall, he helped lead the conservative revolt against the Bush administration’s plan to bailout the ailing banking industry, which nearly every member of Republican leadership at the time voted to support.

Since Hensarling was appointed to the TARP oversight panel by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last year, he has imported some of the same principles that he applied to earmark reform: a focus on procedures, transparency and structural reform.

But first, Hensarling said he is worried that the panel is simply not conducting enough oversight.

“In seven or eight months of existence, we’ve held exactly one hearing with Treasury,— he said. “I have the concern that we are evolving into yet another Congressional advisory panel.—

Hensarling said the panel lacks key tools such as subpoena power and, as a result, is sometimes left engaging in “an interesting public policy debate— instead of “rigorous oversight.—

Hensarling joined former Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) in voting against approval of the panel’s first report to Congress on TARP. The panel released the report last December over their objections.

Hensarling told the Financial Services Committee in Dec. 10 testimony that he was not convinced that the panel had adequate resources to perform the proper oversight or a serious agenda to truly bring “transparency and accountability to the process.—

“Until I conclude that these important issues are addressed, that all taxpayers can be sure that their voices are represented and that the panel represents a serious attempt at bipartisan oversight, I cannot and will not in good conscience approve any reports,— he said.

“On the [TARP] panel, Jeb takes a very similar approach as he does with his work in Congress,— Sununu said. “He is very direct and open.—

Sununu said Hensarling’s background on the Financial Services Committee allows him to speak with authority on the regulatory process.

“He takes fiscal responsibility very seriously,— Sununu said. “Jeb recognizes that the money being spent isn’t government money, it’s taxpayer money.—

Hensarling said his role as the GOP’s TARP warrior has not been the only reason that he retreated from the spotlight. His relative radio silence has been partly by design to let Price gain his footing as the leader of House conservatives.

“I tried to do for Tom Price what I think [Indiana Rep.] Mike Pence did for me, and that was really spend many months being low profile as the next man or woman takes over that job,— he said. “I’ve tried to keep a low profile within the House conservative movement, but now that we are [at] the six-month mark, I’m a little bit more active.—

Last year, Hensarling did not envision himself retreating for a quiet six months in the Financial Services Committee.

After the election night resignation of then-Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.), Hensarling announced a run to replace him hours later.

“I have strong opinions on what has caused the Republican Party to enjoy its minority status,— Hensarling told Roll Call. “I thought it was important to have particularly this conservative viewpoint in the leadership table.—

Like many intraparty agitators before him, he saw his leadership ambitions derailed.

“But then the history is kind of obvious,— he said. “The leader sought out Mike Pence, clearly one of my closest allies.—

Several hours after his announcement to run, Hensarling withdrew his candidacy and threw his support to Pence.

Hensarling dismissed the events surrounding the Conference chairmanship race as history and praised Pence’s performance since being elected, unopposed, to the post.

“By tradition, the Conference shop has a huge communications— operation, he said. “That’s Mike’s forte.—

He added that if he had thought he was more qualified than Pence, he would not have deferred.

“I have an ego, but he has better communication skills that I do,— Hensarling said.

GOP aides and observers speculated at the time that Boehner was put off by Hensarling’s adversarial relationship with his leadership team in the 110th Congress and selected Pence to protect his right flank.

“I’m such an unthreatening kind of guy,— Hensarling joked. “I applaud Leader Boehner for his stance on earmarks — I wish our Conference would have gone a little further in making the case to the American people.—

Pence said he initially had supported Hensarling in his bid for Conference chairman and told him as much in a phone call on the morning his friend announced his candidacy. Later in the day, Pence called back to tell Hensarling that he had decided to seek the position himself at the behest of Boehner and other members of the Conference.

“There is not a leadership position in this Congress that he would not excel— in, Pence said. “When you build your career on a set of principles, opportunities have a way of carving themselves out.—

Hensarling was coy about his future ambitions, saying he would jump at the chance to lead Republicans on the Financial Services panel, but that position is not available.

“I’m not putting myself in the running. I ain’t taking myself out,— he said.

“I do this as long as I think that I’m making a difference. It works for my family and I’m having fun,— Hensarling said. “At the moment, all three of those things are satisfied.—