EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 31, 2005, issue of National Review.
If former senator Phil Gramm could have been in two places at once last June, he might have found a way to testify before a House Committee on financial-services legislation. But he was traveling on business in Europe, and so he asked Jeb Hensarling, a former aide who is now a congressman, to deliver prepared remarks in his absence. “I tried to speak in an accent that the entire committee could understand,” jokes Hensarling, whose own drawl is only slightly less thick than Gramm’s.
Among conservatives, few senators have ever been as popular as Gramm — a hard-driving budget hawk who delivered principled leadership until he retired from public life. In 2002, the same year Gramm chose not to run for reelection, Hensarling was sent to Congress for the first time, from a district that starts in Dallas and sprawls eastward. Since then, he has taken on many of the issues that once motivated his mentor, most notably the crucial but often thankless job of promoting process reforms to rein in federal spending.
The 48-year-old Hensarling is short, wiry, and energetic. He was barely out of high school when he came under Gramm’s influence: He enrolled in Texas A&M and signed up for a banking class taught by a professor who was beginning to think about politics. “Everybody knew that if you were a serious economics student, you had to get with Gramm,” he says. Several years later, after Gramm had won a seat in the House, Hensarling got with him again, by securing an internship with former professor. It was the beginning of a long professional association in which Hensarling coordinated Gramm’s constituent services and served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee when Gramm was its chairman. The experience positioned Hensarling not only to make his own bid for Congress, but possibly to inherit Gramm’s reputation as one of the smartest strategists in Washington’s frustrating budget battles.
“Spending is out of control,” says Hensarling. “Everybody understands that.” Indeed, the facts are grim, especially for conservatives who once thought that a Republican in the White House and GOP majorities in Congress would inaugurate an era of fiscal discipline. Since George W. Bush arrived in Washington, federal spending has grown by 33 percent, which is twice as fast as it grew under President Clinton. Defense and homeland security account for only 35 percent of the expansion, according to the Heritage Foundation. The bulk of the spending increase has gone to entitlement programs, farm subsidies, the Department of Education, and so on…
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