Politics & Policy

Hensarling, RSC Darling?

Conservative House members chose a chairman.

Is it preferable to have an aggressive public face out front or a more experienced inside player at the helm? It’s a question that seems to pop up with nearly every congressional leadership election. The familiar choice is one that members of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) face Wednesday. In electing the chairman that will lead their group in the minority, these members of the House have before them two very different candidates.

With only two terms under his belt, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas has already carved out a name for himself as an impassioned advocate for curbing spending and cutting taxes. Much like his former boss and old economics professor, Sen. Phil Gramm (R., Tex.), Hensarling has found his niche on fiscal issues since being elected to his suburban Dallas and east Texas district. He is a member of the Budget and Financial Services Committees, but calls the RSC his “‘A’ Committee appointment.” He’s used his position as chairman of the RSC’s Budget & Spending Taskforce to offer alternative budgets on the floor with reduced spending levels over the leadership-approved blueprint.

The House chamber has not been the only place where Hensarling has been visible. Like the former political operative that he is, (he ran Gramm’s reelection in 1990 and was executive director of the NRSC when his boss chaired the committee in the early ’90s), Hensarling has shrewdly sought out opportunities to bolster his name i.d. He’s become an oft-heard voice in the media, old and new, conservative and mainstream, pushing the GOP to hold fast to its small-government principles. His image is such that he was invited, along with three of the youngest members of the House GOP leadership, to a photo shoot this week for a forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair.

And now that his party is in the minority, Hensarling says that this ability to draw attention is exactly what the RSC needs. “We will have to present alternative vision. We’re out of the legislating business and in the communicating business,” he tells National Review Online.

But that such a young member has become such an outspoken, and oft-quoted, figure has rubbed a number of his colleagues the wrong way. Some in the leadership could do without his media presence and willingness to attack fellow Republicans to get noticed. And they aren’t alone.

“I’m not about grabbing headlines, but about getting something done,” Rep. Todd Tiahrt, the Kansan who also wants to head the RSC, tells NRO. Asked if this means his opponent is more “about” the former, Tiahrt reiterates his point. “If one thinks it’s more important to get a headline, than I’m not their man.”

Indeed, Tihart has made his mark mostly off the public stage since coming to Congress in the storied class of 1994. A former manager at his Wichita-area district’s massive Boeing facility, Tiahrt got a seat on the coveted Appropriations Committee in only his second term in the House. It’s from this perch where he’s been most effective. He’s brought home valuable contracts for his old employers at Boeing and others in the aviation industry, but also for agricultural interests in southeastern Kansas.

But Tiahrt is not the sort of appropriator who gives the exclusive committee its name as the “third party” in Congress. He touts his efforts to, in effect, work from the inside the belly of the beast. “I’ve worked behind the scenes eliminating programs, including 52 just last year,” he brags.

While most of these cuts were relatively miniscule, Tiahrt has advocated more bold reductions in the size of the federal government. He called for eliminating the Department of Energy in the 1990s and was at the forefront of an attempt to kill President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program.

“Guys who’ve only been here for a couple of terms don’t remember those battles,” says Tiahrt, perhaps thinking of his more junior colleague from Texas.

That is the point, responds a House conservative staffer supporting Hensarling: What has Tiahrt done lately? “He’s not been active at the RSC. He doesn’t show up at meetings, and he doesn’t show up at the press conferences,” the staffer complains..

As for Tiahrt’s boast that he’s been effective at working from within his committee to check spending, this aide retorts: “based on our recent appropriation bills, you be the judge.”

While both Hensarling and Tiahrt have their disputes over their fiscal credentials, both are rock-solid social conservatives. Each is unabashedly pro-life and anti-same-sex-marriage.

Where they really differ is in style. This is not just reflected in their contrasting public images, but also in their respective supporters. Emblematic of their differences in tenure, Tiahrt and Hensarling have something of a generational gap in their list of public backers.

With Tiahrt are the RSC’s “founders,” those who restarted the conservative caucus after it was initially abolished following the GOP sweep in 1994,” Rep’s Dan Burton (Ind.), John Doolittle (Calif.) and Sam Johnson (Tex.). Also on board are Rep’s Chris Cannon (Utah), Mark Souder (Ind.), and Dave Weldon (Fla.).

These members have each served at least a decade in the House. Soulder and Weldon, like Tiahrt, are products of Class of ’94 and Weldon and Doolittle are both appropriators.

While all conservatives, these members, like the man they’re backing, have practiced a different brand of internal politics. They’re more reliable votes for the GOP leadership and less apt to harpoon those leaders for straying from conservative doctrine.

Hensarling’s team, too, reflects the candidate’s nature. Included are current RSC chair Mike Pence (Ind.) and rabble-rousing Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), two of the biggest thorns in the side of the leadership, who both came to Congress in 2000. Also backing Hensarling is Rep. John Shadegg (AZ), Pence’s predecessor at the RSC. Shadegg and Pence, of course, challenged Roy Blunt and John Boehner for their leadership positions last month, with each losing badly.

A pro-Hensarling source points out that the Texan also has two members of the leadership, Conference Secretary John Carter (Tex.) and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), publicly backing his bid. But one leadership aide knows what they’ll be getting with Hensarling atop the RSC.

“He won’t be anymore of a pain in the ass than Pence was,” this staffer says, finding the positive angle.

To get there, Hensarling is counting on a strong turnout. Yes, turnout. RSC elections are like public elections — and differ from leadership elections — in that who is elected often is determined by who shows up. There are just shy of 100 members of the organization in the forthcoming Congress (counting those freshmen likely to join makes an exact count difficult). But of these 100, only around 50 are regular attendees of RSC meetings. One experienced RSC hand said that if only the core group shows up, Hensarling is likely to win. But if more — and more senior — members show, Tiahrt’s chances improve because of the sway the “founders” still hold.

As with leadership elections, though, the key to the whole process could lie in the method of voting — secret ballot. Will House conservatives pick the steady veteran they know going back to those heady days of the Republican Revolution or the articulate upstart with a nose for news?

 – Jonathan Martin is National Review Online’s political reporter.

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