Veteran Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling has said that he doesn't expect to become Treasury secretary in a Donald Trump presidency. But as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he may wind up having almost as much influence. And that means the nation's economic future will be charted, in part, by a zealous deregulator, spending hawk, and unbending free-market crusader--one who will relentlessly prod the Trump administration to uproot the Obama era's sweeping financial reforms.
Hensarling is a longtime foe of Obama's landmark Dodd-Frank legislation, the 2010 legislation that, he claims, has strangled credit and hobbled America with years of zombie-like growth. The congressman is championing the Financial CHOICE Act, a radical measure that would scrap most of Dodd-Frank's highly restrictive measures.
Put simply, Hensarling wants to put the market in charge. His view is that encouraging banks to hold lots of capital (as Dodd-Frank does) goes far enough by itself to shore up the system, making banks far safer than the law's dense web of stress tests, complex limits on trading, and banning of mortgages and credit cards deemed "abusive" by regulators. Now that Republicans control Congress and the White House, it's highly possible that the Hensarling manifesto, or a large part of it, will become law, potentially enabling community banks that fund small business to lend far more freely.
To understand Hensarling's thinking, it's important to review the philosophy he absorbed from Congress's most notable laissez faire proponents. Hensarling grew up mostly on his family's chicken farm in College Station. For college, he remained close to home, enrolling at Texas A&M, where he studied under the economics professor who became his mentor, future Senator Phil Gramm. After practicing law for two years, Hensarling joined Gramm's team in Texas, then came to Washington in 1991 as executive director of the Republican Senatorial Committee, the office that raised money for senatorial campaigns. (Gramm served as chairman.) Hensarling's political acumen helped Republicans regain control of the upper house in 1994. After several years back in the private sector, working first for the Wyly family empire in Texas. then for a hedge fund, Hensarling in 2002 won the House seat in a district that sprawls from Dallas across vast, rural swaths of East Texas.
His approach is singularly single-minded. "He's as tough as they come," says a former associate. "He's all business, with a titanium spine. No one will budge him from what he believes." In 2006, he broke with fellow Texas Republicans to successfully spearhead ending the Wright Amendment, which restricted long-distance flights from Love Field in Dallas. His view was that the regulation had to go because it quashed competition, even though hometown champion American Airlines fiercely fought repeal.
Hensarling is also extremely close to the Vice President-elect, which could give him and his policies a powerful advocate in the White House. In 2006, he managed Mike Pence's unsuccessful campaign to become House Minority Leader.
This September, the Financial Services Committee passed the CHOICE Act. That version is bound to be softened in the Senate, and potentially, by demands from the White House. But if the core becomes law, the shift in financial regulation will be historic. The measure demonstrates that Hensarling is anything but a captive of Wall Street; in fact, it would authorize the Securities and Exchange Commission to impose stiffer penalties on big banks that misbehave. Instead, the bill's goal is to unshackle community banks and credit unions that hold $3.9 trillion in assets (that's almost half the total held by the four largest banking institutions), and funds half of all of America's small business loans.
Hensarling is a firebrand, and he's never more outspoken than when blasting Dodd-Frank. "I will not rest until Dodd-Frank is ripped out by its roots and tossed on the trash bin of history," he declared in a recent speech. The centerpiece of the CHOICE act is a provision that would exempt banks from the more restrictive Dodd-Frank regulations, what Hensarling calls "an off-ramp," if the hold the equivalent of 10% of their assets in capital. It's unlikely that a J.P. Morgan Chase or Citigroup will take that option, The big banks typically hold around 6% of their assets in capital, so going to 10% would mean issuing tens of billions of dollars in new shares, and potentially curtailing new loans. On the other hand, community banks are better capitalized: they typically meet the standard now, or are extremely close. So watch for most of America's 6,000 smaller banks and credit unions to take the off-ramp if given the chance.
The CHOICE Act contains a virtual wish-list of other Dodd-Frank-bashing reforms. One of the most important would be dumping the Volcker Rule, which restricts the size of securities inventories that Wall Street firms can hold on their own books. Hensarling blames the rule for reducing liquidity, and raising trading costs, in the bond market. Another proposal: Scrapping Dodd-Frank's "too big to fail" bailout provision and replacing it with a new sub-chapter of the bankruptcy law. Hensarling extolls the change as putting shareholders, not taxpayers, at risk if big banks fail.
Until November 8, Hensarling's platform looked like something conceived from ideas learned in Phil Gramm's old economics course that could never become law. But now, Hensarling's seemingly wild innovations could unshackle credit in America, or, as his critics charge, unleash banking monoliths to go once again on a disastrous rampage.