An Interview With Senator Jim DeMint

Last last week, I did an interview via phone with Senator Jim DeMint. Here’s a transcript of the interview, edited slightly for grammar and clarity.

John Hawkins: First of all, there was an article in Roll Call the other day talking about how these senators…were saying you were causing a lot of problems for them. Can you tell us about that?

Jim DeMint: Well, I’m getting a lot more encouragement from my fellow senators than I am criticism and I think most Republican senators know we’ve got to make some waves and make some changes (to show) Americans…that we believe something (and) that we are willing to stand up and fight for something again. So, there are some folks who are unhappy, particularly in my fight against earmarks, because that has become the main reason a lot of people are in Congress — to try to get money for special interests back home. So, when you start playing in that sandbox, you make some people mad.

But, I think some Republicans are very quiet about their support because they are afraid that if they express support for me publicly, they may lose their earmarks. So, they know we’re fighting for better disclosure, transparency, and better accountability — and when we do that, Americans might have a little more trust for their Congress and their government.

John Hawkins: Now why don’t we have more Republicans joining you in that? I know that some are, like Tom Coburn, but for a lot of conservatives, (fighting wasteful spending) is exactly what they think Republicans should be doing up there.

Jim DeMint: Well, I think the culture needs to be changed here…because I think over the years, (whether you are talking about) Republicans or Democrats, the primary reason people think that they’re here is to get money back to their state or to some group that supports them. (That can be done in) secret and your name doesn’t even have to be associated with it here.

Thousands of earmarks are added to report language that doesn’t even have the force of law, but it has been carried out by the administration, this one and the one previous, because they’re afraid that if they don’t do what the chairmen of the committees want, they’ll cut other funding. So, it’s kind of a system of internal extortion in some ways — you get this little earmark, but you vote for this big bill, so you need to go along. That’s why the spending keeps blowing up every year. Everyone is voting for more spending because it leaves room for more earmarks. When Republicans lost the majority, they had over 12,000 earmarks…Keep in mind that President Reagan complained about 200 earmarks.

(It’s) ridiculous when Congress starts micromanaging the way money is spent and now you see that we’re spending money on bridges, research projects, road projects, universities, colleges and there are so many negative impacts of that. One is that almost every little town, every little college, all the universities, every group, all the business associations, all of them have lobbyists to try to come up and get special spending. So, we’ve become a favor factory and ignore the big policies like Social Security reform, health care reform, tax reform, the things that really need to be done for our future. It’s hard to even get senators to sit down and listen to you because it’s all about appropriations season.

But, I think most Republicans want to change that and I think they’re happy that a few of us are up here fighting for this earmark transparency and to stop the adding for earmarks in secret conferences. I think if they see me succeeding then you’ll see more and more Republicans standing up and feeling comfortable that not only do they have support back home for this idea, but they can get support here within the Senate.

John Hawkins: Now, nobody has more credibility of cutting spending, cutting earmarks than you do. So, let me ask you: since the Democrats have taken over, has it gotten better, has it gotten worse, stayed about the same? How would you judge it?

Jim DeMint: Well, so far they haven’t been able to pass much. So, they haven’t been able to increase spending. We’ve been able to stop a lot of things. But, we’re just coming into the appropriations season and they were able to pass a budget with a large tax increase in it, but that budget doesn’t mean anything if they can’t get the appropriations out. We need more of an uproar from the American people or the appropriations will go through because if there is one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on too much, it’s spending and whenever you get too much spending in a bill, we can get 35 Republicans against it, but that’s not enough to stop it from going through. But, if people heard more from folks back home, like we did during the immigration debate, about spending and wasteful earmarks, secrecy, and corruption — if they heard more, I think it would do a lot to help Congress muster up the courage to do what they know needs to be done.

John Hawkins: Now, you mentioned the immigration debate. You were one of the people who was on point, fighting against the Senate bill. You were definitely one of the leaders of the fight. Since the immigration bill failed, have there been any poll numbers out for you in South Carolina…? I would just be interested in comparing how you, a senator who was strongly against the bill, is doing — as compared to some of the people who were for it and seem to have taken quite a bit of a beating in the polls afterward.

Jim DeMint: Well, I haven’t done any polls myself, but one of my people back in the state said they saw someone else’s poll that had me at 70% favorable (Hawkins’ Note: I asked Mr. DeMint’s staff about this poll. Apparently, it was a private poll that was not commissioned by Jim DeMint.), which is very acceptable…

John Hawkins: 70%? That’s 2 1/3 Lindsey Graham’s.

Jim DeMint: Well, I think we got a lot of…support from the earmark legislation when we passed it in January and it was followed by the immigration debate and that has given me a chance to step up and take a leadership role because not many in the Senate wanted to take on either one of those issues.

When it came to immigration, we had a core group of 5 senators who jumped out on the tracks on that one and before it was over, we had a majority (laughs).

John Hawkins: Hey, everyone who reads my blog will want to give credit to those 5 senators, so why don’t you name off all 5 of them?Jim DeMint: Well, I can name them. Of course, I was involved. Tom Coburn was involved. We’ve got Jeff Sessions, who was really key there. David Vitter was a real hero and hopefully we can rehabilitate David. He’s obviously made a huge mistake, but he’s trying to make it right. John Cornyn from Texas. So, it was me, Coburn, Sessions, Vitter, and John Cornyn. We were kind of a core group and we had a lot of help from Jim Bunning from Kentucky and Elizabeth Dole from North Carolina really showed up there at the end on the floor. We had to watch the floor, because if we stepped off the floor, they were going to try to pass unanimous consent to move something. That was our whole strategy, to make them go through every hoop that they had to while we worked up support for killing it.

John Hawkins: Now let me ask you: they went through this whole rigmarole with the clay pigeon strategy. I was shocked that so many Republicans were willing to go along with that because it set such an incredibly negative precedent, where you’ve got the Republican leadership and Democratic leadership getting together to roll Republicans….

Jim DeMint: I think there’s no question about it, that was a bad precedent. I was surprised that some of our folks were willing to go along with that, but the fact is that the clay pigeon is what actually killed the thing before it was over. …Trying to use a procedure like the clay pigeon backed them in a corner that they couldn’t get out of and it allowed us to stop them from passing amendments that people wanted for cover. That’s really what it came down to. They wanted to pass some amendments that made it look like they were tough. But, when we didn’t let them pass those amendments, they were exposed and they ended up having to vote against the bill.

John Hawkins: Now let me ask you — I think I know the answer to this but, I’d love to hear it from you and I think my readers would, too — why do you think so many Republicans supported a bill that seemed so obviously to be wildly unpopular?

Jim DeMint: Well, …I think a lot of Republicans…tried to solve a problem and they were thinking in the beginning that we could get good enforcement and workplace verification in return for giving Kennedy his amnesty…and they were going to have fines and penalties so it didn’t look like amnesty. So, I think they thought Americans might buy that and I don’t think anyone had guessed that Americans would respond so strongly because last year, the Senate passed a bill that was worse with not nearly the public response.

But, I think what’s happened is that it’s more than immigration. This was a lack of trust of government and it has grown. It has grown because of Katrina, it has grown because of the war in Iraq, it has grown because we said we were going to build a fence and protect our border and we didn’t do it. So, people just were not going to be taken again and they made their opinions known and I just think a lot of (senators) who got on this ship had no idea it had such a big hole in the bottom, because the ship was going down fast (laughs).

John Hawkins: Now, they’re starting to talk about bringing up certain pieces of the immigration bill, like the DREAM Act, one at a time. How do you think those bills are going to do? I know it depends on the bill, but like the DREAM Act, do you think they’ll have success bringing it back up or bringing up a small amnesty for agriculture workers?

Jim DeMint: I don’t think so, but I think the Democrats might try it. Underneath this, the Democrats were trying to make this George Bush’s bill, but the fact is that the agriculture workers would swell the ranks of the service unions and that’s really what’s behind a lot of this. The unions are dying in America, but they could get millions of new dues-paying members if we legalized the illegals who are here, most of which are low skilled workers who would be part of service unions. Those dues, as you know, go straight to the Democratic Party. …The reason that Democrats keep bringing it back is not because they’re trying to help George Bush (laughs).

John Hawkins: When I talk to other bloggers about Republicans in the Senate, they can’t stand ’em, they don’t like ’em, they don’t have a nice thing to say about ’em, but you say “Jim DeMint,” and they love you and wish they had 50 more like you. So, if one of your colleagues in the Senate said to you, “Jim, how do I get all these bloggers and activists to like me the way they like you,” what would you say to them?

Jim DeMint: Well, you have to have the right ideas and vote right and I think it’s not about likability. I don’t think bloggers are going on personality here. I think a lot of bloggers are blogging because they believe in something. They have an ideology. They believe there are certain common sense principles that keep our country free and they’re looking for people in elected office who’ll stand up for those things.

I think those who are wiser understand that we are very close to losing the America we know and we are very close to sliding towards a socialistic, European style of government, like government healthcare. So, I think that bloggers do believe in something and you can’t fool them with a lot of rhetoric. So, I think if people in the Senate want the respect of a lot of conservative bloggers and talk radio, I think they need to stand up for things that are principled. Sometimes those things aren’t as popular. Frankly, it’s rare that you have a conservative thing you’re standing up for that’s as clear as the immigration debate.

We’ll be talking about health care next. It’s complicated, we’ll try to get everyone insured with private policies, some people will say it’s new spending — it’s not new spending. So, we’re going to have our work cut out for us. But, the choice is either to socialize medicine or figure out how to get people private policies. So, it’ll be an interesting debate and there may be some conservative bloggers who take the bait and say, “This is a new federal program,” but it’s not going to be a federal program, so I hope I’ll have a chance to explain that to you when we get on it.

John Hawkins: Well, heck, we’ve got a moment, so why don’t you do it now? Tell us what you want to do…

Jim DeMint: I’ll tell you simply and then we’ll get out more details and talking points later. The federal government spends a lot of money helping to buy private health insurance for some workers. We do that through the deduction that employers get. But, if your employer doesn’t offer it, you don’t get it. Over the next 10 years, this is an incredible number — we’re going to spend as a nation, $3.7 trillion dollars through our tax code — and some people don’t like to say that we spend through the tax code, but we pay for the insurance for people who get it through their employers. People who buy it on their own don’t get anything.

If we discontinued using the tax code to pay for health insurance and took that $3.7 trillion dollars and spread it out across all Americans, we could give every American family a $5000 a year health care tax voucher that they could use to buy insurance. Every individual, every single person, would get $2000. It would be budget neutral. No effect on the deficit, no new spending…but the choice is, do we want Hillarycare, which we’re headed towards in a hurry, and the Democrats are going to try to expand the child health care program in the next couple of weeks by tens of billions of dollars or are we going to figure out how to get everyone a basic insurance package? One way or the other, people are going to have to be covered. We don’t have to do a mandate, but we can provide every American family, without spending any more money, $5000 to buy health insurance.

eHealthInsurance has just published a report showing hundreds of policies you can buy for less than that. There are good policies out there and the cost of insurance would go down rapidly if everyone was buying them. What we’d be doing is taking health insurance out of the control of employers and putting it in the hands of people. You wouldn’t lose your health insurance when you change jobs; you could keep it for a lifetime. So, that’s what we’re going to be talking about. Instead of expanding this child health program, let’s get everyone insured, let’s make the tax code fair, and treat everyone alike. By doing that, we can give everyone the ability to buy health insurance. It’s a really big idea, but it’s simple on its face. People say it’s too good to be true, but what we’re doing right now is encouraging employers to buy plans that are overly expensive because no matter how much they spend, it’s a free deduction for the employee. We’ll keep you posted, but if we don’t go that route, the only other choice will be Hillarycare.

John Hawkins: I really appreciate your time.

Jim DeMint: Thanks John.

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