House Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) last week visited the Washington, D.C., offices of Human Events for an interview with the editors. Chairman Hensarling addressed many topics important to conservatives and how the RSC is dealing with them.
The Republican Study Committee is a 105-member caucus of House Republicans dedicated to the promotion of conservative principles and the thwarting of the liberal agenda of the Democratic leadership.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
Conservatives are right angry around the country. They’re not real happy with the President and not terribly happy with Congress, and things seem to be kind of floating in a lot of different directions. What’s the Republican Study Committee trying to do to get things back on track?
REP. JEB HENSARLING (R.-TEX.): Well, first we’re going to try not to be angry ourselves. I don’t find that necessarily to be terribly constructive. I’ve gotten an opportunity to laugh or cry on most days—I choose to laugh. Clearly, elections have consequences, and being in the minority is a lot less fun, although in some ways, more interesting. I suppose, in the short time we have been in the minority, a little less than six months, I’ve at least made a couple of discoveries that please me. No. 1: We have the capability of taking really bad legislation and turning it into merely bad legislation. I’ve seen examples where courage is contagious. And, if you care about a principle, if you’ll go to the floor, as the Republican Study Committee did on earmarks, that all of a sudden other people in the conference decide, “Well, maybe I want a piece of that fight.”
I wish I’d coined the phrase Sen. Tom Coburn [R.-Okla.] coined that “earmarks are the gateway drug to spending addiction.” Although, I don’t necessarily believe that each and every one of them is evil, I do think that, for most conservatives, the process, as it has recently been practiced, represents a triumph of a kind of secrecy over transparency, triumph of seniority over merit, and a victory of the special interest over the national interest.
So, when Democrats who ran partially on platforms of bringing us the most accountable earmark process as possible did a 180, conservatives in the House couldn’t sit idly by. We did not sit idly by, and I think the Democrats quickly decided to reverse themselves. So it was a small victory, I understand minority victories will be few, they’ll be fleeting and occasionally prove to be Pyrrhic, but at least for the moment we’ve had a victory.
For conservatives in the House, we’ll continue to fight Democrats for the principles we’ve always cared about: faith and family, and free enterprise and freedom. It’s become a lot more challenging.
We’re also going to, hopefully, educate our conference on continuing the education process of the lessons of the ’06 election. I think most conservatives feel that at least a significant part of our electoral demise was tied to the fact that the American people expect Republicans to act like Republicans, especially when it comes to the area of accountability and fiscal responsibility. Although some good work was done, there were far too many occasions where the Republican Conference did not live up to those principles. Nobody expects Democrats to be fiscally responsible — it’s not what they do. They expect it out of us, and if we won’t do it, then either our base will sit on their hands or they’ll show up at the polls, but they won’t bring anybody. And, certainly Independents will say, “You know, if I’m looking for someone to be fiscally responsible, it’s clearly not the Republicans anymore.” So, those are some of the things that we continue to do, but the most important thing is that we fight on principle on every front that we can find. And we understand that a necessary and indispensable part of furthering the conservative cause is regaining the majority. Certainly it is not sufficient, because having a majority of Republicans but not having enough conservatives does help explain, to some extent, our demise at the ’06 ballot box.
You mentioned a moment ago that there might be some other lessons in the ’06 elections. What do you think the principal lessons were?
HENSARLING: Well, no one can underestimate the impact of Iraq on that election.
If one surveys the last 20 to 30 years of congressional scandals, I think you’ll see an overrepresentation of Democrats. Unfortunately, if you look in the last several years, you will see an overrepresentation of Republicans. That was clearly on people’s minds.
And last but not least, I would say our base, outside of Iraq, was concerned that our government was less than competent, our government was less than frugal, that we had lost our commitment to limited government, and that it didn’t make a difference which party governed. They had waited their whole lives, many of them, their whole lives to have a Republican in the White House and a Republican Senate and Republican House, and this is the best they could hope for? I understand that, I count myself among their numbers.
Explain how the Democrats reversed themselves on earmarks and what they did differently. Is [Rep.] Jeff Flake [R.-Ariz.] a part of your group?
HENSARLING: Jeff is really like the congressional champion for earmark reform. Period. And he’s a man of great courage who always has a smile on his face, when there are many days he has no reason to smile. He’s a very, very dear friend of mine.
The Republicans woke up toward the end of the last Congress and understood that the earmarking system had to change. It was conservatives in the Republican Study Committee butting heads with our own Republican leadership that led to changes in the earmarking process, which essentially meant that before earmarks could go into a bill: 1) You would have to have an author or member of Congress attached to that earmark; 2) there had to be a reasonable period of time to review the earmarks that were contained in the bill; and 3) there had to be a vote, either a point of order or an amendment to an open rule that members had to have the opportunity to challenge earmarks. That was a process that was set up fairly late in the 109th Congress.
Was that the RSC? Was that your particular resolution?
HENSARLING: Well, I would think that any reading of congressional history would show that it was the RSC that caused those reforms to be adopted. Many members, including myself, were not prepared to vote for a budget resolution unless we had the earmark procedures put in place. It’s kind of a long answer to a short question. So, those procedures were in place, but we implemented them too late to get any credit with the American people.
The Democrats came in, and the first thing they said was “we’re going to have a moratorium on earmarks.” I applauded them, I publicly applauded them, but we all know that actions speak a lot louder than words. Ostensibly, they were going to have a similar process to our own, and then recently, Chairmen [David] Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, just up and announced that we would pass appropriations bills — which contain roughly 40% of federal spending (we won’t even get into entitlement spending for the moment) — we would pass annual appropriations bills, and members of Congress would be asked to vote for bills that essentially had place holders — slush funds — for earmarks to be identified at a later time.
So he wanted us, the other 434 members of the House to vote for appropriations bills essentially based on the “trust me” principle, and that he, Chairman Obey, and the staff — and as you well know, outside the beltway most people think staff is an affection you clean up with penicillin — and somehow they are going to vet all of these earmarks and airdrop them into a conference report. Now, this is inside baseball, but if they appear in a conference report, conference reports are unamendable.
The Democrats had done a complete reversal on transparency, they had done a complete reversal on accountability, so the Republican Study Committee said, “We will not sit idly by.” One of the few tools we have available to us is procedure and floor action. We have started a floor action team, under the leadership of Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, Tom Price of Georgia and Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who are experts. And essentially, we went to the floor, and I personally submitted 66 amendments to the first appropriations bill. Now, we spent eight and a half hours debating one second-degree amendment by Patrick McHenry, all the while making the point that the Democrats had reversed themselves on earmark transparency.
Again, I know that earmarks are a small portion of the federal budget, but I believe they are a large portion of the culture of spending. In order to get to the numbers, you’ve got to change the culture, and earmarks, in my mind, too often—not all the time, I want to offer that caveat, some are good, some have helped change federal policy — but all too often they teach people to become dependent on the federal government. They teach members of Congress who otherwise would be fiscally conservative to value their earmarks above all. Because of that, the RSC went to the floor, totally supported by Republican leadership, which is a somewhat new phenomenon for the Republican Study Committee, but working in concert with them, we manned the floor. Our leadership negotiated with the Democrats, and I think that any fair reading of what happened is, at least on paper, the Democrats decided to do a full reversal. They could not sustain a national debate on secrecy and unaccountability, if there’s such a word.
Precisely how was it different?
HENSARLING: They reversed themselves. The procedure now is, with the exception of the first two bills that were already cued up, all the other appropriations bills will have the earmarks identified in the bill. There will be time to review the bills, members can go to the floor and challenge individual earmarks and call for votes. So, it’s a reversal.
What about the Novak column that Republicans are backing the President’s threat to veto spending bills? Can you describe that a little bit, what’s happened there?
HENSARLING: Well, first if I could, the lion’s share of the credit ought to go to [Rep.] John Campbell [Calif.], who is the budget and spending task force chairman of the Republican Study Committee, that’s the office I held before I was elected chairman. Anyway, he was the main architect, I seem to be getting most of the credit, but he’s done most of the work. But, again, if there’s any universally held opinion in the Republican Study Committee, our 105-member conservative caucus, it’s that the party in reality and the party in appearance lost its way on limited government and fiscal responsibility. Most of us have just been praying that one day the President would find the ink cartridge to his veto pen. The purpose of this project was to try to encourage the President to go out and do just that and to let people know that there is a difference between the two parties when it comes to fiscal responsibility, accountability and limited government. We knew we had to go out and find 146 signatures, so John Campbell, myself and others went out and buttonholed colleagues on the floor for about two weeks. Now, the first 105 signatures came pretty easily, it was after that it became a little bit tougher. But again our leadership, [Republican Leader] John Boehner [Ohio] et al, supported this — they signed the letter. Jerry Lewis, our ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, signed the letter, and it became a little easier sledding after that. If the President were forced to veto a bill today, I’m confident that there would be enough members of the House to sustain that veto.
Did you work with the President on this or with OMB Director Rob Portman? How did this come about?
HENSARLING: Rob’s an old House colleague, so he knew we were doing this. I’m not sure what came first, but I certainly had conversations with Rob on this on several occasions. So he knew about it, and it had his blessing.
In terms of some of the other hot things that are coming up, it does appear that, unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance that this immigration bill is going to get through the Senate in one form or another. How do you think it’s going to play out in the House?
HENSARLING: I hope poorly — my crystal ball is a little fuzzy. Speaker Pelosi has spoken on a couple of occasions, saying she needs 60 to 70 Republican votes to bring this to the floor. I don’t know if that’s a head fake or if she’s being serious. I would be surprised if that bill, in it’s current form, could pick up more than 15 or 20 Republican votes in the House.
Are Republicans getting a lot of pressure from the White House about it? Or is it too early?
HENSARLING: I personally haven’t received that pressure. I don’t know if our members have. I think our views are fairly well known. And with one or two notable exceptions, my guess is about 98% to 99% of the Republican Study Committee that has looked at that bill would view that essentially as an amnesty bill. They would view it as a bill whose main thrust was to try to provide legal status for those who are here illegally. They would not view its main thrust as to secure our borders.
For conservatives, the purpose of an immigration bill is to secure our border. That’s what the whole thesis is, and it almost seems like it’s the tail wagging the dog over on the Senate side. If you’ll just give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, we will appear to be throwing you some more border security, but whether we are or not may be subject to debate. I think House conservatives are fairly unified in the position that the purpose of any legislation ought to be to secure our borders. And I say secure our borders, not close our borders, secure our borders.
How do you differentiate between?
HENSARLING: I’m personally a free-trader. I personally believe America is a nation of immigrants — it always has been, and it always should be. Some of the best Americans I know were not born in America because they have known something else besides freedom and opportunity, and many of them treasure our birthright more than native-born Americans do. Now, we can’t let everybody in, but I would hope there would always be some room for people who want to roll up their sleeves, play by the rules, learn the English language and come here and work hard and build.
Does the RSC have an expert who concentrates on immigration? Does the RSC take stands on such issues?
HENSARLING: Well, our bread and butter is to try to provide people who are committed to the conservative cause an analysis of every piece of legislation through that conservative prism. That’s kind of the study part. There’s an action part as well, just like we took to the floor over earmarks. Occasionally we take formal positions. I tend to take, for lack of a better word, informal polls, and when the overwhelming number of RSC members believes in something, we usually act. I think you will see some action out of the RSC on the amnesty bill, because with one or two noticeable exceptions, we will be unified in our opposition against that bill.
Looking to September, Gen. David Petreaus is going to come back and report something about the troop surge in Iraq. Have you been to Iraq? Have you met with Petreaus? Say his report comes back and it’s not glowingly positive, are things going to fall apart in the House? People are predicting the Senate is going to go South pretty fast.
HENSARLING: Well, I think it’s interesting to note how much disunity there is on the other side of the aisle. Clearly, the Democrats have the power, if they wanted to, to bring the troops home in 30 days. They control the purse. They have a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate. If they wanted to cut off funding and bring the troops home, they could do it. They are finding that a little bit easier to espouse then to actually accomplish on the floor. I think they were blistered by the fact that many Americans were holding them accountable for not supporting our troops, and frankly, I think it is absolutely unconscionable. If one, in his heart and head, has concluded that the mission is not proper, that our troops cannot achieve the mission, but because he’s fearful of the political fallout won’t bring the troops home, I just think that’s unconscionable.
For me, and I think most House conservatives, it is hard to see a greater threat to our families and our nation than the threat posed by radical Islam. Now, you may not like how we got into Iraq, you may not have liked how the campaign has been conducted heretofore, but I think most House conservatives have long since concluded as costly and difficult as it is to fight this war, it pales in comparison to losing this war.
In terms of the House Democrats, it seems that some of the so-called “blue dogs” got elected by being more responsible than the Murtha-crats. Are the “blue dogs” really holding to that? Do you see the divisiveness on the other side? Or are they whipping people into shape come hell or high water?
HENSARLING: When our party was in the majority, you could see several noticeable and public disagreements among House conservatives, leaders of the Republican Study Committee, and our leadership. I have seen no evidence whatsoever that the “blue dogs” are letting their voices be heard within their conference. If it is being heard, it’s being heard in such a way that no one in America can hear it.
Are the “blue dogs” a bunch of poodles?
HENSARLING: I didn’t say it.
We’ve heard voices of dissent in the Republican Party from time to time, but we see such accelerated, hot, acid-laced rhetoric from the Democrats. [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D.-Nev.] is out there every day saying the war is lost. Is there ever a peep from among the Democrats saying maybe he shouldn’t be saying that? I don’t hear any dissent from the most outrageous remarks.
HENSARLING: I haven’t heard it either, which has been disappointing. You asked me if I’ve been to Iraq. I have been to Iraq, I’ve been to Iraq with a couple of “blue dogs” in fact. I think it would be helpful to have them raise their voices.
You said it’s disappointing, but is it surprising?
HENSARLING: Same answer to the “poodle” question.
What about the alternative minimum tax (AMT), can you tell us about that, what is happening in that area?
HENSARLING: I don’t serve on the House Ways and Means Committee, I am not certain about what ranking member [Rep. Jim] McCrery [R.-La.] is working on. The RSC will be coming out with our own AMT bill, which functionally will be an alternative simplified tax, details to follow.
You are not just going to just have a patch on it?
HENSARLING: Well I don’t know what we are going to end up with, but I think it was Lady Thatcher who said, “First you have to win the debate, and then you can win the vote.” Part of what we have to do is, of course, win the debate, and the American people first have to be educated that there is a difference between a new tax cut and preventing a huge automatic tax increase, which under conventional scoring rules of the Congressional Budget Office is going to lead some people to believe that “this has to be offset.” So the Democrats are going to claim they are being fiscally responsible in offsetting their AMT patch with huge increased taxes on people who go out and create jobs and opportunity for the rest of us. So that is an important part that we have to have in the debate.
Do you guys have your own specific agenda?
HENSARLING: We both act and react. Let’s face it, we are now on defense. You can score on defense, but it’s a lot more difficult than scoring on offense. Democrats control the agenda on the House floor. We have a strategy on playing defense on a number of issues we think the Democrats will deal with.
We still intend to play offense. We announced about six weeks ago a taxpayer bill of rights that the RSC has undertaken. That was one example of playing offense. Again, the Democrats control the House agenda and to some extent they control the national media attention. We will always attempt to play offense, but we also understand the new reality of congress.
Have you been able to recruit any “blue dogs” for any of your agenda items, these guys who prop themselves up as conservative Democrats? Have you received an inkling of support from them on any ideas?
That sums it up. What else is on your agenda for the next couple of months? There must be some good conservative ideas that are burbling back there.
HENSARLING: We’re happy that the President has also issued a veto threat on appropriations bills that do not contain our traditional pro-life riders. We’re also happy that we have enough votes to uphold his veto on the embryonic stem-cell research bill that for many of us amounts to the taking of human life with federal funding. We’ve mainly talked about economic issues, but we’ve done a good job on holding our ground on the life issue.
The big issue that is kind of on the horizon for many of us as we continue to work our taxpayer bill of rights — of which an AMT repeal will be a part — is to try and announce some principles on health care reform. Paul Ryan [R.-Wis.], who is a member of ours and is ranking member on the Budget Committee, has been particularly involved in this effort. Ultimately, you cannot solve the nation’s fiscal woes until you can figure out how can you insure quality health care at more reasonable costs. If you don’t get health care, just about everything else you do doesn’t matter in the equation.
I take very seriously the controller general’s admonition that we are on the verge of being the first generation in America’s history to leave the next generation with a lower standard of living, all because of the explosive growth of entitlement spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, in that order. As I wear my congressman’s hat, I frequently find it helpful to simultaneously wear my daddy’s cap. I view a lot of these issues on how it affects my five-year-old daughter and my three-year-old son, and right now, their taxes will be double.
These were programs designed in the 20th Century that haven’t kept pace with times in the 21st Century. They’re debt-based programs, not savings-based programs. The programs are one-size-fits-all, and they don’t use the power of the market place. I think really, when it comes to anything on the fiscal front, the real challenge for conservatives is to go to the American people and convince them that we have a better idea. And we know what those ideas are: They’re freedom and market competition.
Do you see another Social Security reform bill poking its head up?
HENSARLING: I don’t know, I think the President deserves a lot of credit. I am not sure he wasn’t undercut in the House by some folks. You have to give the guy some credit. At that time, he did have some political capital and he risked it. That and preventing another 9/11 is what I admire most about this President. He was at least the first President that I know who had the courage to try to reform this. Reforming Social Security is child’s play compared to what you have to do for Medicare and Medicaid.
There have been plans proposed to block-grant Medicaid to the states, but then all of a sudden they die and nobody pushes them.
HENSARLING: Before this Congress is over, you will see significant legislation to reform those big three entitlement opportunities out of members of the Republican Study Committee.
Is there a GOP presidential candidate you are backing?
HENSARLING: I support the conservative who can win, and as soon as I figure who that is, I’ll let you know. As the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, I am not anxious to put my name on any of the candidates. I am not backing anyone at the moment. I have to be inspired by my presidential candidate. I have yet to be inspired. Having said that, I can assure you that the moment the Democrats nominate Hillary or Obama, I can get very inspired, very quickly.