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DeMint: Farewell, Filibusteringest Senator

Four days ago The Hill ran a story about Sen. Jim DeMint, R.-S.C., under the headline, “DeMint Could Go From Bomb-Thrower To Dealmaker On Key Senate Panel.” The senator most closely associated with the Tea Party was about to become ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science, and Transporation committee, The Hill’s Brendan Sasso reported, and “observers expect him to adopt a conciliatory approach.” Well, observers were wrong. DeMint announced today that he’s leaving the Senate to succeed Ed Fuelner as president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Being a senator was never going to be my career,” DeMint explained. Indeed, being a senator never interested him much even during the seven years he served in the Senate.

By this I don’t mean that DeMint was a latter-day Cincinnatus who served his country reluctantly out of sacred duty. I mean that DeMint didn’t like participating in Senate business. The giveaway was an op-ed DeMint published two years ago in the Wall Street Journal welcoming “the new class of Senate conservatives.” His most startling piece of advice was to “beware of committees.” He elaborated:

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.

This was, I wrote at the time, a “bracingly nihilistic notion about what it means to be a U.S. senator.” Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, an expert on Congress, informed me that he had never heard anybody spout this line before. Although committees are indeed less important in the Senate than in the House, Mann wrote in an e-mail, they are still pretty important in the Senate, “essential for getting into the guts of legislation and learning something about the substance of programs and their implementation.” Legislating from the Senate floor means either writing amendments or filibustering, and when your party is in the minority, as DeMint's has been since 2006, their practical aim is usually identical—to prevent a particular bill from being passed. According to the anti-filibuster Web site Filibusted, DeMint had the highest “obstruction rate” in the previous Congress, voting against cloture motions 93.8 percent of the time. On one occasion in 2010 DeMint threatened to put a hold on every single piece of legislation before the Senate that he did not favor. DeMint recently wrote that “opposing cloture is not a filibuster,” but merely “an attempt to leverage some participation in the legislative process.” 

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DeMint never acquired—or even tried very hard to get—such participation. Given DeMint’s politics, that can only be counted a blessing. DeMint believes that neither homosexuals nor unmarried, sexually-active women should be employed as teachers. He believes that dependence on government diminishes dependence on God. He believes it should be illegal for a woman to discuss abortion with her doctor over the Internet or by videoconference. DeMint was among the first conservatives to suggest raising taxes on the poor to “broaden the base,” and it was DeMint who said of Obamacare, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

Deciding he had little use for the people currently serving in the Senate, DeMint concentrated his efforts on helping fringe candidates like Delaware’s Christine "I Am Not A Witch" O’Donnell and Kentucky’s Rand Paul win Republican primaries. When Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin was abandoned by his party after his learned disquisition on “legitimate rape,” DeMint publicly affirmed his support. DeMint’s PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, spent $8 million in the 2010 election cycle and $14 million in the 2012 cycle.

DeMint’s departure would appear to be yet another manifestation of the post-election GOPocalypse. DeMint, who’d already said he wouldn’t seek another term in 2016, told the Wall Street Journal that he was leaving four years before his term ended “because we saw in the last election we were not able to communicate conservative ideas that win elections.” DeMint is hardly the scholarly type, but Heritage, which back during the Reagan administration was Washington’s preeminent conservative think tank, has been eclipsed in recent years by the once-staid American Enterprise Institute, whose energetic president, Arthur Brooks, is a slick soundbite-spewing partisan who behaves more like a politician than a scholar. DeMint’s hiring appears to be Heritage’s way of saying to AEI: “See you and raise you.” In the Senate he leaves behind, DeMint will not be missed, even (perhaps especially) by his GOP compatriots.