By Jim Demint
The Wall Street Journal
Congratulations to all the tea party-backed candidates who overcame a determined, partisan opposition to win their elections. The next campaign begins today. Because you must now overcome determined party insiders if this nation is going to be spared from fiscal disaster.
Many of the people who will be welcoming the new class of Senate conservatives to Washington never wanted you here in the first place. The establishment is much more likely to try to buy off your votes than to buy into your limited-government philosophy. Consider what former GOP senator-turned-lobbyist Trent Lott told the Washington Post earlier this year: “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”
Don’t let them. Co-option is coercion. Washington operates on a favor-based economy and for every earmark, committee assignment or fancy title that’s given, payback is expected in return. The chits come due when the roll call votes begin. This is how big-spending bills that everyone always decries in public always manage to pass with just enough votes.
But someone can’t be bribed if they aren’t for sale. Here is some humble advice on how to recognize and refuse such offers.
First, don’t request earmarks. If you do, you’ll vote for legislation based on what’s in it for your state, not what’s best for the country. You will lose the ability to criticize wasteful spending. And, if you dare to oppose other pork-barrel projects, the earmarkers will retaliate against you.
In 2005, Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) offered a measure to kill funding for the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” Before the vote, Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), an appropriator, issued a warning on the Senate floor.
“If we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next,” she said. “When Members come down to the floor to vote on this amendment, they need to know if they support stripping out this project, Senator Bond [a Republican appropriator] and I are likely to be taking a long, serious look at their projects to determine whether they should be preserved during our upcoming conference negotiations.”
The threat worked. Hardly anyone wanted to risk losing earmarks. The Senate voted 82-15 to protect funding for the Bridge to Nowhere.
Second, hire conservative staff. The old saying “personnel is policy” is true. You don’t need Beltway strategists and consultants running your office. Find people who share your values and believe in advancing the same policy reforms. Staff who are driven by conservative instincts can protect you from unwanted, outside influences when the pressure is on.
Third, beware of committees. Committee assignments can be used as bait to make senators compromise on other matters. Rookie senators are often told they must be a member of a particular committee to advance a certain piece of legislation. This may be true in the House, but a senator can legislate on any matter from the Senate floor.
Fourth, don’t seek titles. The word “Senator” before your name carries plenty of clout. All senators have the power to object to bad legislation, speak on the floor and offer amendments, regardless of how they are ranked in party hierarchy.
Lastly, don’t let your re-election become more important than your job. You’ve campaigned long and hard for the opportunity to go to Washington and restore freedom in America. People will try to convince you to moderate conservative positions and break campaign promises, all in the name of winning the next race. Resist the temptation to do so. There are worse things than losing an election—like breaking your word to voters.
At your swearing-in ceremony, you will, as all senators do, take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.” Most will fail to keep their oath. Doing these five things will help you maintain a focus on national priorities and be one who does.
Congress will never fix entitlements, simplify the tax code or balance the budget as long as members are more concerned with their own narrow, parochial interests. Time spent securing earmarks and serving personal ambitions is time that should be spent working on big-picture reforms.
When you are in Washington, remember what the voters back home want—less government and more freedom. Millions of people are out of work, the government is going bankrupt and the country is trillions in debt. Americans have watched in disgust as billions of their tax dollars have been wasted on failed jobs plans, bailouts and takeovers. It’s up to us to stop the spending spree and make sure we have a government that benefits America instead of being a burden to it.
Tea party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country—not be co-opted by the club. So put on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today.
Mr. DeMint is a Republican senator from South Carolina.
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