Jewish World Review May 4, 2004 / 13 Iyar, 5764
Carl P. Leubsdorf
Gramm's former student Hensarling picks up the cause
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | First came the professor. Now comes his student.
A quarter-century after a Texas A&M economics professor named Phil Gramm arrived in Congress and immediately declared war on federal spending, his one-time student, freshman Rep. Jeb Hensarling, is pursuing a similar course.
In his first term, the Dallas Republican has become a leader in efforts to limit spending, just as Gramm did as a freshman. Given the partisan acrimony and narrow majorities in Congress, he is likely to find the task every bit as hard as Gramm, who enjoyed a mix of successes and setbacks.
Still, Hensarling seems both determined to do his part and realistic about the barriers.
It's like the time his father asked him to clean up the chicken house on the family poultry farm, the 46-year-old congressman said.
"What I discovered was one does not clean up overnight what took many years to accumulate," he explained. "And that observation ... is also valid in the United States Congress. We're not going to clean up overnight what took years and years to accumulate in this place. But we're working on it."
Last month, Hensarling waged a spirited but losing bid on the House floor to reduce spending in next year's budget. Next month, he hopes to win House passage of a measure to strengthen the budget process by making congressional budgets binding.
It's an unusual role for a freshman. But it's reminiscent of how Gramm teamed with another youngster named David Stockman to present an alternative budget in his first year in the House.
Later, the congressman helped sponsor President Ronald Reagan's tax and spending cuts.
And when the deficit soared, he devised the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill with Republican Warren Rudman and Democrat Ernest Hollings. It required spending limits to cut the shortfall.
He had only modest success. Congress never reached the deficit targets and found ways to avoid mandatory cuts. But the budget was balanced in the late 1990s, thanks in part to an economic boom that sent revenue soaring.
Even if Gramm didn't achieve every goal, he was a success, Hensarling said. "Just to even slow the rate of growth in government for a short period of years is a Herculean task.
"There is an institutional bias here in favor of spending. And ... there's a political dynamic in place where if you want to indicate how much you love schoolchildren, that you love veterans, that you love the elderly, the only way to measure that is how much more money will you spend next year vs. what you spent last year.
"Unfortunately, much of it turns out to be rampant waste, fraud, abuse and duplication."
It's more complicated than that.
Federal programs often cost more than advertised, lawmakers regularly lard bills with pet projects for their districts, and the Bush administration talks of holding down spending while gaining big hikes for defense and doing little to force reductions elsewhere.
Besides, much of the budget is "uncontrollable" because of mandatory benefit programs, such as Social Security. But Hensarling rejects the view of many Democrats that the Bush tax cuts and resulting deficit are the main problems.
"I view the deficit as a symptom and spending as the disease," he said. But he conceded that finding a cure is hard. His alternative budget got only 116 votes, 100 votes fewer than it needed to pass.
"I understand that progress comes in very small increments in this place," he said. "Sometimes, what you're trying to do is set a high water mark so you can come back the next time."
Hensarling conceded he doesn't know how many next times he will have. Though he has a safe seat, his wife and two children - Travis, 2, and Claire, 7 months - live back home, making him one of an increasing breed of congressional commuters.
"As long as this works for my family and I'm having fun and I feel like I'm making some progress in the quest for less government and more freedom, sure, I will (continue to) submit myself to the voters," he said. "I just got here."
Besides, his mentor stayed 24 years before retiring in 2002.
03/04/04: No one's whistling Dixie