Budget Hawk Hensarling Critical for Looming Debates

The next Congress will be dominated by budget and fiscal issues. Almost immediately, the 113th Congress will have to grapple with Obama's demand to lift the debt ceiling and pair any further spending cuts with increased tax revenue. The budget is on an unsustainable path and can either be tackled now or in the wake of a certain collapse in the near future. It will require every ounce of principled fortitude that the GOP can muster. Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling is one particular member who has consistently shown he was the will to fight for conservative positions. He will be a central figure in the looming showdown. 

Last night, Hensarling, who is currently number four in House Leadership, broke ranks with Speaker Boehner and voted against the Senate "cliff" deal. There are few chapters in his career, however, that better recommend a more leading role for Hensarling than the debate over TARP and the Wall Street bailout. It is important to remember that when the original idea was proposed in September 2008, Republican members were under intense pressure from the Bush Administration to quickly approve the plan put together by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. They were told, by their own Administration, that a failure to act would plunge the nation into another Depression. 

Hensarling, however, didn't blink. Instead, in fact, he rallied House Republicans and led the opposition against TARP. He was a large reason TARP failed on its initial vote. He spoke from the House floor after voting against the measure:

But my greatest fear is that it changes the role of the federal government in our free market economy, which despite its current problems, remains the envy of the world. How can we have capitalism on the way up and socialism on the way down? If we lose our ability to fail will we not in turn lose our ability to succeed? If Congress bails out some firms and sectors, how can it say no to others? We must always be very careful to ensure that any remedy does allow short-term gain to come at the cost of even greater long-term pain – that being the slippery slope to socialism. The thought of my children growing up in America with less freedom and less opportunity is a long-term pain I cannot bear.

After the market reacted negatively and amid overwhelming arm-twisting by the Bush Administration, a number of House Republicans later changed their vote and passed TARP. Hensarling, though, voted against it again. He has quipped that he would vote against it a third time if he had the chance. 

In this Congress, Hensarling has served as the #4 in House GOP Leadership. In the next Congress, he is stepping down to assume the gavel on the Financial Services Committee. He served a term as Chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee. As a result, he has deep experience in the House as an institution. First elected in 2002, he's had a remarkable rise in the Chamber in just 10 years. 

His life-time rating from Club for Growth is 98%. Heritage Action gives him an 82% rating, significantly higher than the average GOP member's rating of 66%. His score from Heritage Action is relatively low, given his strong conservative principles. It likely is a reflection of his tenure in Leadership, when one often has to take votes in the interest of the entire caucus. By comparison, Rep. Cantor's rating is just 52%. That he has in the past been willing to support Leadership makes his defection on the Senate deal all the more striking. 

He served several years as a senior aide to Sen. Phil Gramm, at a time that Gramm was championing efforts to get the budget under control. A profile in National Review seven years ago even argued that Hensarling had inherited the chief "budget nanny" role from Sen. Gramm.  

But, in the end, it was his leadership against the TARP bailout that most stands out. GOP Members had dozens of reasons to support Bush's push for TARP. There was only one real reason to oppose it: principle. That was enough for Hensarling, and he chose to make his stand there. 


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