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House Republican Conference Chairman, Jeb Hensarling, on the Pledge and budget cuts

Tuesday, February 15, 2011
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HH: This hour, I start with Jeb Hensarling from the great state of Texas. Congressman Hensarling, of course, is the chair of the Republican Conference. Chairman Hensarling, welcome back, good to have you.

JH: Hey, Hugh, great to be back. You’ve had a lot of great guests tonight.

HH: Yeah, but they’re making us all crazy, because I, and most of my listeners believe that you guys are on the brink of violating the Pledge To America, which said roll back to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout spending levels. It’s got nothing to do with the fiscal year ’11 budget, Chairman Hensarling. What’s going on?

JH: Well, for me, and for most Republicans, you can’t cut big enough, soon enough, but we didn’t get in this pickle overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight. I would say that number one, you’ve got…we’ve already voted to repeal Obamacare. We voted to save $2.6 trillion dollars. The Pledge talks about $100 billion. So number one, we’ve already exceeded that. But it’s not enough. I mean, on the one hand, we are turning a corner here, and actually debating how much should we cut, how quick enough, and that’s great. Relative to the size of the problem, though, it’s very little, and we’ve got a long way to go. But as far as keeping good to the word of the Pledge, I think we’ve already done it. And if we haven’t done it, judge us on two year’s performance, not five weeks.

HH: Well now, the Pledge says, Congressman, with common sense exceptions for senior, veterans and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone. To me, that just means 2008 fiscal year spending, that you can’t give Interior more than Interior had then, you can’t give EPA more than EPA had then, you can’t give Housing and Urban Development and Transportation, any of the discretionary agencies any more than they had in 2008. It seems to me pretty simple. And, it says, you’ve got to get at least $100 billion backwards from 2010, nothing to do with 2011. Am I reading it the right way?

JH: I think you’re reading it the right way, but it also didn’t say it was going to get done in one vote on one day. And again, we’ve already voted to repeal Obamacare. We’re about to have a budget that’s going to come out that I think will have the only entitlement reform spending that anybody has put on the table, saving trillions of dollars. So listen, the first thing you’ve got to do is keep your word. I believe we’ve already kept our word, and if we haven’t, we are far going to exceed that over the course of the next two years. $100 billion isn’t even a rounding error, Hugh, as you well know, on where we have to go to save this country from bankruptcy. We’ve got an honest to God debt crisis that is keeping job creators and entrepreneurs from expanding their businesses or creating jobs, who are threatening the next generation with the loss of the American dream. And so I expect over the course of two years to be voting on countless measures to save trillions of dollars. And I believe that’s what the Republican conference is going to be about.

HH: Well, that’s exactly right. $100 billion is a rounding error, the 2008 level, but it’s about credibility. And against the backdrop of last week, and I guess I’ve got to ask you this as bluntly as I can, does the leadership realize the enormous damage that was done to the leadership’s credibility by the Hal Rogers budget last week? Do they realize that nobody trusts you now?

JH: Well again, all I can say is judge us on two years of performance. And when you talk about credibility, when people, if you look at the Pledge, which was a governing document dating back to September of last year, what people talked about, what I recall, and I don’t have…it was non-defense discretionary spending. But again, Hugh, I would ask the American people to judge us on two years of performance, and not five weeks. And again, when you read the Pledge, I don’t see where it said you’ve got to get it done by Valentine’s Day.

HH: It said this year.

JH: So all I would say, again, is either A) we got it done, or B) if we haven’t got it done, judge us at the end of two years, and you can let us know whether we got it done then.

HH: But what I think the people who listen to this show, and the people who are probably contacting a lot of the members say, is you’ve got leverage right now. You have the continuing resolution. You must agree to it. You’ve got the debt ceiling coming up. You’ve got leverage there. If not now, when? And why is it so difficult to get, you know, Jim Jordan said here’s $250 billion, Rand Paul said $500 billion. Why not get to it? And why does it seem like everyone’s afraid of saying, you know, I’d rather shut the government down than have another fiscal crisis like 2008? In other words, where’s the fight?

JH: Well, Hugh, I think if you looked at my record, I’m probably among the top three or four most fiscally conservative members of the House by any ranking whatsoever. You can’t cut big enough, large enough, soon enough for me. But again, this nation has been getting into, digging a deep hole for years. I mean, to some extent, out of fairness to the President, he didn’t put us on the road to national bankruptcy. He’s just pressing on the accelerator and showing no signs of turning back.

HH: Agreed.

JH: So you know, it’s going to take a little longer in turning, I’m mixing metaphors here, in turning the battleship around. But Republicans, number one, have voted to repeal Obamacare. Number two, for the first time I believe in the history, at least since I’ve been in the House, we’re not having weekly votes to terminate programs instead of create new programs. And although relative to the problem, the savings of roughly $150 billion over the next 12 months, relative to the President’s last submission, it may be small relative to the problem. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think since World War II have you actually seen a C.R. cut spending. So what I’m saying here is have we gone to where we need to go? No. But have we turned a corner? Absolutely, yes, and I think we have it pointed in the right direction. I wish it could all get done in five weeks. It’s not going to get done in five weeks. And frankly, until we have a change in the occupant of the White House, and until Harry Reid is retired as Senate majority leader, it’s not going to get done in two years, either. We need more help.

HH: But another thing I hear a lot, and which I believe has a great deal of legitimacy, Jeb Hensarling, is this is going to go over to the Senate. If you guys open with a mere $100 billion in cuts off of FY’11, which isn’t 2008 levels, but if you just open there, they’ll cut it back. Why not open big? Why not say, like the President basically sent over a fake budget today, because he knows you guys are going to open, and he’s going to try and hammer you on being the bad budget cutters. But the country’s media savvy. We get all this. Why not open big?

JH: Well again, you can’t cut big enough, large enough for me, but I’m one vote out of many. We’re talking about a C.R. that deals with essentially discretionary spending for the remaining months of the fiscal year. And that’s where we are. I mean, you’re going to see more work particularly on our budget that will be negotiated with the Senate, with our program terminations. So all I can say is we’re just getting started.

HH: Okay, let me ask you about some specifics. Again, I’ve heard the same thing. I don’t think it works, but you know, it’s up to the people to decide, not me. Is NPR going to be zeroed out in the C.R. that comes out of the House?

JH: Oh, Hugh, I don’t have that in front of me. I think so. There’s 150 program terminations. I don’t have them all in front of me as we speak, but I think NPR is there. And there is no reason whatsoever that any taxpayer should be funding NPR, not at a time when we’re borrowing forty cents on the dollar, a lot of it from the Chinese, and sending the bill to our children and grandchildren.

HH: What about the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities? Under the same logic, if we are really in a fiscal crisis, wouldn’t we be shuttering all of these programs immediately?

JH: I believe so, but unfortunately, Hugh, I should have done this, but I don’t have the list of 150 program terminations in front of me. I can get them to you, not in time for us to finish this interview, but I’ll get them for you, so you can see the 150 program terminations.

HH: All right, let’s go back to the big issue. And I’ve heard everyone say we’re not interested in shutting the government down. And I don’t think anyone is. But if it comes to that, are you guys prepared to take the media heat that comes with standing on the necessity of turning the ship around, and not caving when it comes to the short strokes in the next two weeks?

JH: Oh, all I can say is there’ll be a High Noon moment, and I believe we’re going to end up being the Gary Cooper and not the other guys. You’re right. Nobody wants to shut down the government, but we know that the classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. And as we’ve said before, you know, if the President wants any help in paying his bills, he’s going to have to start cutting up the credit cards. And there’s going to have to be an agreement between the Senate, between the White House, and between the House in putting our fiscal house in order, and seeing major spending reductions and major spending reforms, particularly putting caps on these expenditures. I mean, this is a legitimate crisis.

HH: Congressman Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the Republican Conference, thank you, we look forward to having you back a lot. I appreciate you taking the hard questions today.

JH: Hugh, always happy to do it. You take care.

HH: Will do.

End of interview.

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