Fiscal Conservatives Have a New Hero

Fiscal conservatives are embracing a new hero these days. Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.), who teamed with Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) last week to prevent a pork-laden appropriations bill, is being lauded for his courage to stand up for fiscal responsibility.

“The hero of the lame-duck session was freshman Republican Sen. Jim DeMint,” columnist Robert Novak wrote yesterday. “He was instrumental in blocking a Senate-House conference on a military construction appropriations bill, which would then be used as the last train out of town to carry pork.”

As the new chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, DeMint will have a platform to make the case for smaller government. Last Friday I sat down with him to talk about his desire for conservatives to embrace fiscal responsibility in the 110th Congress. Our interview is below and also available as a downloadable Podcast (above).

Senator, I want thank you for agreeing to do the interview with HUMAN EVENTS. And I want to begin by asking you about the Steering Committee and what your vision is for it in the coming Congress?

Well, it’s probably a more important function than it’s been in the last 12 years because now with the Republicans in the minority in the House and the Senate, we have no control of what bills come to the floor and come over here. The only thing that can stop bills and slow them down are Senate rules that the Steering Committee is going to use to stop bad legislation, at least as long as we can.

What we hope, though, is that it won’t just be a matter of stopping bad legislation, but [also] that the leverage that Harry Reid knows we have—as well as our own members on the Republican side—will encourage them to work with us on creating some positive legislation. And that’s our goal. I’ve already talked with Harry Reid about his interest in earmark reform as well as his possible interest in a longer continuing resolution that would take us through next year, and told him that we didn’t care who got the credit. As long as it was good policy, we could bring a number of votes to the table.

The Steering Committee will play a role in shaping legislation. But I also plan on helping the Steering Committee shape the vision and the message for the Republican Party. It’s the largest group within the Republican side, and on the House side, the Republican Study Committee is also the largest caucus. What we need to do is help shape a vision that the rest of Republicans feel comfortable with—that we can present to the voters in about a year to show them that we got the message, we’re listening now and we’re going to fix this spending problem, we’re going to fix this corruption problem, and here’s what we’re going to do in the future to create a better America.

We’ve got a big function. I’ve found that leaders in the Congress, whether it’s the House or the Senate, are so involved with what we say is herding cats—trying to make the trains run on time or trying to get something done—that they have very little ability to stand back and talk about ideology, philosophy, vision, and really what policy should be. We need to be the conscience of the Republican Party. And I think the Steering Committee can play a key role because [Democrats] can’t overlook us because we can stop things or make it painful.

On those two issues that you just mentioned in your discussions with Senator Reid—earmark reform and the continuing resolution—do you sense a willingness to work with you or will this be nice talk at the beginning of the next Congress and will it then turn into the same kind of partisan divide that we’ve seen in the past?

We really don’t know, but I wanted to offer because I know if he tries to do earmark reform that is serious, he’ll probably have some opposition within his own party—and within ours. But if he can get together 25 votes, I probably can too. And we can probably pass something if it is good government idea. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt going into this that he wants to do some good things that look more responsible and accountable—the things they talked about in their campaign, which we didn’t pay enough attention to in the majority.

Are there specific Democratic senators who you think you could work with on some of these fiscal issues? For instance, Senator Obama worked with Senator Coburn to pass the transparency bill in this Congress. Are there others out there who you could reach out to?

I think I’ve got good relations with a lot of them. While some Democrats might work on some social issues, some might work on fiscal issues and some international issues—I think it’s going to be different. But I think a lot of the Democrats know that they had success because they were talking conservative talk as candidates. I think they also know that where we lost ground as Republicans was among the independents, who like to see bipartisan cooperation, who like to see us moving the country forward.

A lot of these Democrats who want to stay here or run for President, I think, are going to be looking for ways to break out of the pack. We just want to be there if any of them want to work on constructive policy.

I see what we’re doing as not necessarily anything that’s hard right. I see the Steering Committee as guiding the Congress down the middle of the right side of the road. I think that’s where America is. I think that’s the basic idea of our Republic—limited government and lower taxes. Hopefully we can not only be effective in stopping bad legislation, but also creating some good legislation. And creating a vision that makes sense to the country.

Fiscal conservatives are delighted with the success that you and Senator Coburn had with the fight with appropriators over the spending bills. Why did you decide to get involved and become a public face—and team up with Senator Coburn to do this?

The election had a lot to do with it. For years, in the House and then over here, we have worked to try to reform the appropriation and earmarking system. We tried to work within the Republican Party. This past year we had the Fiscal Watch Team, we introduced earmark reform and we were just not getting anywhere. After eight years of going through this, almost every year these bills go to conference, they come out a foot tall with thousands of earmarks, we have a few hours to look at it, and basically they say, you vote for it or you’re going to shut down the government. That’s not a good position to be in.

I have gone along with that more than I should. And I think we felt what Americans felt. I saw one poll question this week that really hit home. The question was, Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Over half of Americans agreed with that statement. I think that’s where we are as members of the Steering Committee, as conservatives, as common-sense Americans—Republicans or Democrats. What we’re doing does not make sense.

The members of Congress who did not get the message from November 7 have been here too long to see. Because if you look, there were three top issues: There was the war, there was the corruption, and there was wasteful spending. The second two are related. The corruption we saw in the House was bribery for earmarks, and it just opens us up for so many questions. And even if you had people with strong integrity here, the system challenges you at every turn. And you shouldn’t have to work in a system that works that way. We shouldn’t have a Congress where communities and colleges and associations all over the country feel like they have to hire a lobbyist, pay him $100,000 or more a year to come up and try to get an earmark.

If we looked at the direct and indirect cost of how we’re appropriating money, and what that does to us in Congress and people outside of Congress, it’s a terrible system. And the opportunity cost of spending the whole year doing that means we don’t get to entitlement reform or tax reform or regulatory reform. We don’t do the oversight because we’re spending all our time deciding where bridges go, where sewers go and creating a Favor Factory that has caused America to lose confidence in what we’re doing.

This is a system that has been going on for decades. The Democrats used it for years. And when the Republicans came into the majority, I think they thought because we had different people and different ideas that we were bigger than that system. But the system was bigger than we were. And while we did some things—welfare reform, balanced budget—eventually the system changed us. That’s what happened on November 7. You saw people with good intentions who are now being controlled by the system. We need to change that. So I got the message. I think the majority of Republicans got the message. We actually did a whip count of Republicans who are supporting what we’re doing, and we believe we have well over half of the Republican conference who are saying either out load or whispering, “Stick with it.”

Do you think you’ll get more people to put a public face—come out and speak out on the Senate floor? And is there going to be any change with the appropriators? Do you see them moving and realizing some of the issues you’re talking about?

I need to say on behalf of the appropriators, this is not their fault. This is a job we’ve given them to do. This is a system we’ve given them to work in. All of us submit our requests every year. So we can’t blame them. We all have to share the blame. This is a bipartisan blame situation. It’s been going on too long to blame any one party. But I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of members coming out of the closet saying this was the right thing to do. Because if they do offend appropriators, and more importantly, the staff on the Appropriations Committee, they know if we keep doing earmarks, they could lose out. So there’s this tension here of “I need to do what’s good for my state” and “I need to do what’s good for my country.” And those things shouldn’t be at odds.

Everyone here knows we’ve got to do something with this earmarking system and the spending that’s going on. But they’re afraid if there the ones who start—like we’ve got people all over the state of South Carolina calling and worried that all their projects are not going to be funded because of what I’m doing. All I can tell them is they may not be funded, but no one else’s is either.

This is not good for the country, and what happens is, you’ve got a lot of senior guys who throw a few scraps and bones to the rest of us and dare you to vote against the bill. I think some of us have just decided we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

I want to ask you about Social Security. There have been reports that the White House has been considering raising taxes in terms of a Social Security reform package. What do you think of those ideas? Is there any way Republicans would allow that to pass in the Senate?

I don’t think that’s a good idea and I don’t think that’s going to fix the system. … If we can’t stop spending the surplus on other things, then we’re not serious about Social Security reform. We had $80 billion last year that went straight through that was not needed for retirement benefits and was just spent. And all that we’ve got left is an IOU.

We need to take the surplus off the table for the next 10 years and have it invested in a federal note that’s a negotiable asset that can’t be spent, so that Social Security begins to become a funded pension plan. That’s one thing Americans are beginning to understand. If you’ve got an underfunded pension plan, you’ve got big trouble. This is a completely unfunded pension plan, and we need to have real assets in it. The American people need to own it rather than the politicians.

That’s a simple idea. How we get there—stopping the raid is pretty simple. The long-term fix is much more complicated. But we’ve got to fix it based not on taxes, but a funded system with real assets.