Maxine Waters — the fiery liberal from Los Angeles known for calling House Republican leadership “demons” and threatening to nationalize oil companies — has gone from the scourge of Big Business to a sympathetic ally for corporate America.
Waters is executing this transformation by seizing on the growing divide between conservative Republicans and Big Business and leveraging her position as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, where in the coming weeks she will play a role in the battles over extending a terrorism insurance program and the Export-Import Bank.
A large part of her strategy has been to seek out opportunities to play the yin to committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling’s yang. When the Texas Republican’s free-market agenda has led him to oppose government programs the business community supports, Waters has been ready to jump in and deal.
“Here you have industries who’ve always had support of the opposite side of the aisle who now, for whatever reasons — be they political or just change in philosophy or whatever — have flipped the script. And that industry needs some friends,” Waters, 76, said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office, describing her strategy of embracing the gap between Hensarling and the business community. “So you have an opportunity, if you believe in what you’re doing, to work with them — even if you’ve never worked with them before and even if you’re never going to work with them again.”
Two years ago, this was not the kind of conciliatory tone that most industry executives thought they’d be hearing from the 12th-term Californian.
In fact, when Waters was preparing to take on the top Democratic position on the Financial Services Committee in the fall of 2012, her detractors had plenty to grumble about. She had only recently been exonerated from an ethics investigation tied to the 2008 bank bailout; many wondered if she could fill the large void left by her predecessor, Barney Frank; and the business community and many Republicans viewed her warily.
Some two years later, even some of her GOP colleagues speak fondly about working with Waters.
“She’ll meet you in the middle — or towards the middle, at least,” Rep. Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican on the committee.
If Waters is keeping an “open-door policy” to industry officials, Hensarling’s message often sounds more like: “Here’s what going to happen,” said one lobbyist who requested anonymity to avoid antagonizing lawmakers who oversee the industry that lobbyist represents.
“He’s been so unreasonable that it helps her look and sound reasonable by comparison,” the lobbyist said. “And she’s capitalized on the opportunities that he’s given her.”
In Hensarling’s view, that’s hardly criticism as he touts his agenda as an effort to end “crony capitalism.”
“Chairman Hensarling will continue to represent the hardworking American taxpayers of Main Street and he will leave it to others to represent the lobbyists of K Street,” said Financial Services Committee spokesman David Popp.
The first big opportunity to land in Waters’s lap this Congress was the debate earlier this year to delay the rising price of government-subsidized flood insurance for homeowners.
House and Senate Republicans elevated the issue last year with bills to delay rate increases Congress set in motion in 2012. It was familiar territory for Waters, who co-authored the 2012 flood insurance overhaul that led to the problem. It was an attempt to improve the indebted program’s poor finances, but it wound up giving members sticker shock.
The program is the responsibility of Hensarling’s committee. He attempted to work with House Republicans on a proposal to ease the impact of the rate hikes. But there was only so far he was willing to go for an “unfair and unsustainable middle-income entitlement,” and talks fell apart.
Recognizing that many Republicans were antsy to act, Waters began convening bipartisan meetings and conference calls. At times, Waters said she was speaking daily with Rep Steve Scalise (R-La.), now the majority whip, whose Gulf Coast district surrounds Lake Pontchartrain.
When House GOP leadership ultimately decided that Hensarling’s proposal didn’t have enough Republican support, Waters found herself a lead negotiator working with former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to finalize a bill that could get through the House.
“The support was coming together from both sides of the aisle because the constituents were saying: You better fix this. So that provided a real opportunity to make something happen,” she said.
The House passed the bipartisan flood insurance bill in a 306-91 vote in March, and it was signed into law a couple weeks later.