Dallas Morning News: Hensarling’s unfinished business includes crusade against consumer agency Trump may tap him to run
WASHINGTON — Of the eight Texas congressmen retiring in 2018, Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling is among the ones going out on top. He that oversees the nation's banking sector, and has no trouble raising campaign funds.
The president eyed him for treasury secretary, and he's reportedly on a shortlist to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — an opportunity to defang an agency he's spent years trying to kill off.
He sat down recently with The Dallas Morning News to discuss his impending retirement from the House and reflect on his eight terms.
"It's kind of a bittersweet decision. But I never intended to do this for the rest of my life," he said. "I'm 60 years old. I probably have time for one more career in my life. ... I don't specifically know what I'm going to do. On the other hand, I have an aspiration that many Americans have: work less hard, make more money, spend more time with my family."
If that's really his goal, the CFPB gig is probably not the right move, though he spoke before it came open. And it would provide a shot at accomplishing something that has eluded him as a conservative crusading against big government and exploding deficits.
“That’d be fantastic, if he’d take it. I don’t know if he wants to just go home and get his life back, or if he’d be willing to take that. He’d be eminently qualified,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip.
Hensarling worked as a top GOP strategist under then-Sen. Phil Gramm before running for Congress in 2002. He's spent the last five years as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, a perch he has used to mixed effect.
He has long sought to eliminate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the quasi-federal housing lenders that required huge bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis, which they have since repaid.
He also has sought for years to shutter the Export-Import Bank, which lends to U.S. exporters and their customers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others call it a vital economic engine. Hensarling calls it a tool of "crony capitalism" and a "poster child for corporate welfare" that subsidizes big corporations such as Boeing.
Two years ago, fellow Republicans rolled past him and reauthorized the bank.
"We certainly gave it a good kick in the shins," he said.
Just before Christmas recess, a Senate committee rejected President Donald Trump's choice to lead the bank — former congressman Scott Garrett of New Jersey, an ally in the effort to dismantle it. Senators of both parties weren't eager to install someone so critical at a multibillion-dollar institution.
That could signal a tough road for Hensarling if Trump taps him for the consumer protection bureau, which has broad powers over major sectors of the economy.
On why he's retiring
"I never thought I would be here this long. I originally thought it would be three to five terms, up or out," he said.
Under House GOP rules, Hensarling loses his chairmanship at the end of 2018. The rule also hit science chairman Lamar Smith of San Antonio, and he also chose to retire.
"Being term-limited is just kind of a natural time to hang up your spurs," Hensarling said.
He and his wife have two teenagers and, as he put it, all they've known is a part-time dad. But he rejected the suggestion that congressional service can be hard on families.
"It's all relative. I just came back from Poland, visiting our troops. These men and women are away from their families for nine months at a time. I work in air conditioning. I don't have Russians 70 miles away," he said. "I never admit to sacrificing anything."
On his ambitions
When Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison retired in 2012, he considered trying to make the leap to the Senate, where he'd served as Gramm's executive director at the GOP's campaign arm.
"I spent about 60 seconds thinking about it," Hensarling said. "I was on the verge of being a committee chairman and I thought, I can have a much bigger impact on public policy, and it's a sure thing vs. this other thing. And in the 5th District, every time I'm home I can sleep in my own bed rather than Motel 6 in Beaumont."
By then, Hensarling had chaired the Republican Study Committee, an influential conservative bloc that served as a springboard for Vice President Mike Pence. And he'd spent one term as chairman of the House Republican Conference — the No. 4 leadership post after speaker, majority leader and whip.
He traded that track for the Financial Services gavel.
"I'm a little bit more of a policy wonk," he said, noting that running the party's communications portfolio under Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio moderate, wasn't a good fit.
"I thought I had to give up too much of myself to do that job. I've got a lot of respect for John Boehner but he and I just didn't see eye to eye enough on enough issues," Hensarling said. "I just didn't feel comfortable being part of that Boehner team."
That wasn't something he mentioned at the time.
"Did I forget that?" he said, laughing. "I can assure you that had my good friend Paul Ryan been the speaker at the time, I would not have stepped away."
Focus on debt
Hensarling has long been an outspoken fiscal hawk. He served — with Ryan, among others — on a bipartisan commission assigned with brainstorming ways to reduce the exploding national debt.
Drawing out dark predictions requires little prompting.
"My greatest regret will be my inability to convince my colleagues on both sides of the aisle of the seriousness of the peril of the looming national debt crisis," he said. "I don't think we would ever wake up and become Greece — but I don't know it for a fact. And I know what the face of national bankruptcy looks like. It looks like padlocked factories, it looks like riots in the streets, it looks like soup kitchens."
Hensarling still considers the toughest vote of his career the one in November 2003 to add a drug benefit to Medicare. He'd been in office just 10 months. The margin was razor thin. President George W. Bush gave a hard sell. So did Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay of Sugar Land.
"There's no getting around the fact that it is the largest increase in a social welfare program in a generation," Hensarling told The News days later. "Only time will tell whether I just voted to bankrupt my children."
He still winces at the memory.
"I regret having my name associated with that vote. In the context of the times I don't regret making the vote," he said, recalling Bush's threat to sign an even costlier Democratic version if this one fell short. "Nothing quite gets your attention like the president of the United States pointing his finger at you."
But, he said: "To expand entitlement spending without reforming entitlement spending is just objectionable to me. So, yeah, that one kind of hit me in the gut and still does."
As for the CFPB, he's called it a "rogue agency," asserting in a Dec. 12 op-ed in The Dallas Morning News that it "represents profoundly bad government."
The Dodd-Frank law enacted in 2010 as a response to the 2008 financial crisis created the bureau.
Hensarling has long maintained that the bureau is unconstitutional because the law gives it authority to regulate credit cards, car loans and mortgages virtually without congressional oversight. Lately, he's fought to roll back a crackdown on payday lending — the first federal effort to regulate that industry, begun without explicit congressional approval.
The bureau's first director, Obama appointee Richard Cordray, resigned Nov. 24 and is now running for Ohio governor as a Democrat. His departure triggered an unusual turf fight: Cordray designated his deputy as acting director. Trump insisted on handing the reins temporarily to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney — like Hensarling, an outspoken critic of the bureau. After some confusion and a brief court fight, Trump prevailed.
The president is expected to name a new director in coming weeks. According to Politico, Hensarling is one of three contenders.
Public Justice, a left-leaning group that advocates for consumers and workers, views with alarm his ties to industries he would oversee, noting recently that he has received $1.35 million in donations from commercial banks such as Wells Fargo — the most of any House member.
"It's right to have a federal agency working to protect consumers and vigorously enforce the consumer protection laws as written by Congress," the congressman wrote in his op-ed. "But it's wrong to have an unconstitutional agency making up its own laws, evading checks and balances, and often harming the very consumers it is supposed to protect."