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Hensarling's Political Muscle Tested In His Fight Against Export-Import Bank

U.S. House of Representatives

Late Tuesday, Republicans in the U.S. House moved to temporarily extend the authority of the Export-Import Bank as part of a funding bill needed to prevent a government shutdown at month's end.

U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Dallas Republican, has bucked businesses and some Republicans in his battle to phase out the agency that finances U.S. exports.

KERA takes this look at Hensarling, a rising political star, who may lose the short-term battle, but expects to win the fight.

Last month, the Americans for Prosperity convention in Dallas was a showcase for liberty-leaning politicians with national ambition: presidential hopefuls Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz.

Hensarling also addressed the crowd.

“I dream of a spending limit to the constitution to prevent national bankruptcy. I dream of a fair tax or a flat tax that is IRS free,” he said to applause.

Still Mentioned As Candidate For Speaker

Hensarling, 57, says he’s not running to replace John Boehner, the U.S. House Speaker.

Still, close friend and former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan keeps talking about what a great speaker Hensarling would make if Boehner steps down.

“He’s one of the intellectual leaders of our party and he’s one of those people I believe a lot of our members look to and listen to when we have difficult situations we are confronting,” Ryan told KERA Aug. 27.

Hensarling recently said “no” to running for majority leader, the second highest leadership position in the House.  But would he really say “no” to being No. 1?

We asked the question this way:

Shelley Kofler/KERA: “If your colleagues came to you and said, ‘You’re the guy for this job,’ would you do it?"   

Rep. Hensarling:  “I do not think it is smart for Republicans to be looking beyond the election that takes place the first week in November. So that’s what I’m focused on.”

What he’s also focused on right now is one of his many efforts to reign in federal spending and, as he puts it, advance free market competition.

Battle Against Export-Import Bank

As chairman of the powerful Financial Services Committee, Hensarling wants to end funding for the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing to U.S. businesses selling their products overseas. He doesn’t like subsidies and objects to 80 percent of the bank’s financing being spent on big multinationals like Boeing.

“I don’t think it’s fair that one small business in Mesquite, Texas - say Williams Paint and Body that serves Americans - the federal government doesn’t come in to subsidize their product but if somebody cares to sell to the Russians and Chinese the federal government does. I don’t think it’s wise. I don’t think it’s fair,” he said.    

Hensarling admits he may not win the battle when Congress decides whether to reauthorize the Bank this month. He predicts lawmakers will extend reauthorization for a short period of time while the debate continues. But he believes he’ll eventually kill the agency. 

Going The Distance 

He likens the long-haul fight to another one he waged to end earmarks. That’s the practice of lawmakers funding specific projects, often in their own districts.

“It took four years," he said. "I still have some scars, but ultimately we got the Republican conference to give up on earmarks and that is a good thing.”

Hensarling has bucked his own party on other economic reforms. He opposed TARP and the federal bailout when most Republicans didn’t. He worked to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac during the housing credit crisis. He wants to reform the tax system and pass a constitutional spending limit.

His small government, deficit-cutting philosophy tracks closely with that of his mentor, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm, for whom he worked.

The Dickey Flatt Test

“He taught me you should consider anything you vote on in light of the Dicky Flatts of the world,” he said.  “You got to be able to say that somehow the cause of opportunity and liberty, that somehow the plight of the common man was made a little bit better because of your efforts.”

Hensarling believes eliminating the Export-Import bank passes that test. 

A Republican proposal would extend the bank charter through June 30, 2015, while Congress decides whether to reform the agency or eliminate it as Hensarling has proposed.

Hensarling is running for reelection and faces a Libertarian opponent in November, but no Democrat.