Tea Party Texan Hensarling's war on Washington

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) has set out to change the way business is done in Washington, and there are some signs that he is succeeding.

The Tea Party favorite and House Financial Services Committee chairman has taken up the simmering fight over the Export-Import Bank as a signature issue. The 80-year-old institution was once reliably supported by the GOP but has come under attack from hard-line conservatives who call the bank’s financing programs “corporate welfare.”

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Over the next month, Hensarling has his best chance yet to kill off the bank, but his efforts to oppose extending Ex-Im’s charter put him at odds with business groups and many in his own party. 

Hensarling’s move to take on the Ex-Im fight is just one example of his aggressive style.

He battled last year to change the nation’s terrorism insurance program, a fight that also pit him against powerful business interests in Washington. Another goal? Toppling the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, which he argues was written to protect Wall Street by institutionalizing “too big to fail.”

The positions have raised Hensarling’s profile, sparking questions about whether he might seek to run for Speaker if Rep. John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (Ohio) decides to bow out after the current Congress.

“It’s not something I’m thinking about,” Hensarling told The Hill in a rare, wide-ranging interview.

“I’ve been at the leadership table,” said Hensarling, who is eager to cast himself as a policy wonk. “I decided to leave that to focus more on policy, and right now I’m focused on the agenda of the House Financial Services Committee. Period. Paragraph.”

Hensarling’s opposition to Ex-Im is not without political risk. BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE and business heavyweights including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce staunchly support extending the bank’s charter.

Yet the fight has also highlighted the Texas Republican’s growing clout.

He scored a major coup last year when Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced his opposition to Ex-Im’s extension just as he was running to replace former Rep. Eric CantorEric CantorTrump nominates two new DOD officials Brat: New ObamaCare repeal bill has 'significant' changes Overnight Energy: Flint lawmaker pushes EPA for new lead rule MORE (R-Va.) as House majority leader.

McCarthy’s shift was seen as an effort to shore up support with Hensarling and his allies on the right.

It’s unclear whether Hensarling will win the Ex-Im battle. While his committee has jurisdiction over the bank, Boehner could choose to go around the finance panel and bring extension legislation to the House floor.

Besides McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) also has split with Boehner on the bank, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP leaders, top tax writers: Trump principles will be 'critical guideposts' Trump proposes sweeping tax reform McConnell warns Dems: No 'poison pills' in funding measure MORE (R-Ky.) says he is personally opposed to it.

For his part, Hensarling insists his position on the bank is based on ideology, not politics.

“Your success in America ought to be based upon how hard you work on Main Street — not who you know in Washington,” Hensarling said.

Hensarling, 57, took over the chairmanship of the influential panel in 2013, and his tenure has met with mixed reviews on Capitol Hill.

One former Financial Services Committee staffer said Hensarling “shocked” the business community by not letting it set the agenda.

“For years, the Financial Services Committee agenda and legislation used to be set by financial industry lobbyists,” the former staffer said. “That changed dramatically after Hensarling took over. ... Hensarling has moved the committee back to where it should have always been: acting independently of the industry.”

But another source familiar with the business community was less convinced, arguing that Republicans took back control of Congress by “promising to be competent and productive.”

“Hensarling instead turned Financial Services into the most divisive and unproductive House committee,” the source said. “Meanwhile, big issues like [housing finance reform] ... are left hanging in jeopardy or awaiting action. It’s no wonder members are avoiding what was once considered to be a prestigious committee.”

Hensarling’s agenda has included relentless attacks on the Dodd-Frank law’s myriad regulations designed to rein Wall Street in. In practice, he said, the statute has fallen short of that goal.

“I mean — nothing helps a financial institution more than knowing they’re going to have a government backstop,” Hensarling said. “So it’s the Democrats who decided to help Wall Street with an official government stamp that says, ‘You are too big to fail. We will back you up.’ ”

He called Dodd-Frank “the working man’s worst enemy, along with ObamaCare” and said it has left low- and moderate-income Americans as “collateral damage.”

“We’ve tried Dodd-Frank. We’ve tried it for five years. It’s failing us,” he said.

The latest Republican answer to Dodd-Frank, a sweeping bill put forward by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to overhaul financial regulations, contains many provisions with which Hensarling’s panel has grappled.

Hensarling said he’s supportive of the “thrust of what [Shelby] is trying to do,” in particular a section of the bill meant to improve transparency at the Federal Reserve, which saw its powers expand under Dodd-Frank.

He argued that despite the Fed’s increased power, “there hasn’t been a commensurate increase in congressional oversight and accountability.”

“It’s time to look under the hood and take a good close look at it because this is not your father’s Fed,” Hensarling said. “They are operating in a most opaque fashion without transparency and without accountability.”

Earlier this month, he issued subpoenas for documents at the Treasury Department, the New York Federal Reserve Bank and the Justice Department after he says he was “stonewalled” by the administration.

When pressed if more subpoenas were possible, he answered: “Absolutely.”

Though Hensarling maintains he is not looking to climb the political ladder, others believe he is bound to move up in the House GOP conference.

“He will be future leadership at some point,” said Mark Calabria, a former senior GOP Senate Committee Banking aide who now heads up the Cato Institute’s financial services team.

“He’ll be a big part of Republican Party politics for the next 10 or 20 years,” Calabria said.

He noted parallels between Hensarling’s political strategy and that of liberal star Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenGOP senator: Trump is 'moving at business pace, not government pace' Dems crowd primaries to challenge GOP reps Senate votes to confirm Rosenstein as deputy attorney general MORE (D-Mass.), though he acknowledged the comparison would “annoy both of their supporters.”

“Like Warren, he’s very thematic. And he’s willing to take on his own party,” Calabria said. “There are some times advantages to that — it can help pull the party closer to you in some ways, but it can also establish a little more credibility.”