The 10th District Republican, now 43, has long been considered a rising star among House GOP lawmakers. He’s worked in leadership as Republicans’ chief deputy whip, and he’s often labeled as an aspiring Speaker of the House. He’s got a lifetime rating of 93 percent from the American Conservative Union.
Now, he’s got a new platform: adversary-in-chief to House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters.
McHenry is the ranking member on the powerful financial services panel, a coveted committee with jurisdiction over housing, banking, insurance and real estate.
In addition to Waters – a longtime California congresswoman who has become known as the liberal icon “Auntie Maxine” as she’s sparred with President Trump – the financial services panel includes outspoken Democratic freshmen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
McHenry has slammed Waters’ policies as “bad for America,” the Hill reported earlier this year.
“The politics she supports, and the politics she votes for, and the policy she votes for, are really bad for America and really bad for job creation, really bad for economic growth,” he said during an interview on “The Cats Roundtable” radio show in New York. “And that’s why I have opposed so much of what she’s doing, which is going in a really very far-left direction.”
Like almost everywhere on Capitol Hill this year, partisan disputes have dominated some of the committee’s gatherings since Waters and McHenry have assumed their leadership positions.
At a hearing in April titled, “Holding Megabanks Accountable, A Review of Global Systemically Important Banks 10 Years after the Financial Crisis,” Waters slammed the Trump administration and the leaders of some of the country’s biggest banks.
“It will always be profitable for the banks to swindle consumers, investors and small businesses if no one is going to hold them accountable,” Waters told bank executives.
“And so as policymakers we must evaluate what it will take to rein in chronic lawbreaking by the biggest banks. What we should not do is to reward them for this behavior. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Trump and his allies in Congress did with the passage of the tax scam.”
McHenry accused Waters of using the hearing to score political points. “Why are we here?” he asked. “I fear my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are here to attack our economic system, attack the nature of our market. I fear my friends want to dictate social and environmental policy through government mandates on banks. That’s not the right approach.”
McHenry’s critics have accused him of advancing payday lending practices in the House. During the last Congress, he was the lead sponsor of bipartisan legislation that would permit financial institutions to charge interest rates that exceed state caps. McHenry and other backers of the bill said it would help borrowers to get much-needed loans, but consumer advocates decried the effort as a measure that could trap North Carolinians and others in debt.
“It is disappointing that Congressman McHenry sponsored legislation that could allow debt trap loans to weasel their way back into our state, which has firmly rejected them,” Kelly Tornow, director of North Carolina policy for the Center for Responsible Lending said in a statement when that bill passed the U.S. House last year. The legislation didn’t advance in the Senate.
Waters, too, slammed that legislation. “The bill will make it easier for bad actors to evade safeguards that states have put into place to protect borrowers,” she said at the time.
But despite their deep divisions on policy and politics, McHenry told Policy Watch this week he sees plenty of room to find common ground with Democrats, even in this highly polarized Congress.
“The relationship that I’m able to have with the majority and individual members in the majority and with the chair is one of honesty, which means say clearly we’re going our way, we’re not interested in Republican support … and other times saying we’re actually willing to work with you,” McHenry said in an interview.
Waters “has her agenda focused on the president and she has her politics focused on the president. I have a different position on those two things; that doesn’t dominate our conversation because we’re not going to agree,” he said.
He called their professional relationship “very good.”
Waters declined to discuss her relationship with McHenry. “I never do interviews about members,” she told Policy Watch.
Several other Democratic committee members described McHenry as collegial, despite their policy disagreements.
“We have been friends since he came to Congress. He is a very reasonable, thoughtful, pragmatic person,” said Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.).
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Texas), who entered the House with McHenry in 2005, said the North Carolina Republican was “considered a bomb thrower” when he came into Congress as a freshman. “But over that time, I’ve found him to become more and more collegial,” Cleaver added.
North Carolina Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-1st) considers McHenry to be a friend. “He communicates with me on a regular basis, and he is very accessible. Every time I reach out to him, he responds.”
Butterfield called McHenry’s repudiation of Waters’ policies “political rhetoric,” adding, “I think Ms. Waters has some very forward-thinking and constructive ideas about how to reform our financial institutions.”
As for his political aspirations, McHenry shrugged off talk about his long-term plans.
“My focus is to get the best results I can for my constituents and the country with the time I’m given,” he said. “And I’m willing to cut the tough deals that are going to have a big impact and make whatever sacrifice politically in order to do it. I’m not holding my breath for some future thing because people are talking about it.”
He’s definitely not eyeing a Senate seat. “No,” he said, when asked whether he might run for that chamber someday.
“I’ve been in the House, I’m in my 8th term. I’m in a position that puts me in league with senators, being a Republican leader on a committee. I can get results. It’s not about the fanciness of the other chamber.”
Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member.