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Associated Press/Photo by Mary Ann Chastain

'The taxpayers' greatest ally'

Congress | But conservative Sen. Jim DeMint is no friend to status quo politics

Issue: "Hurtling toward havoc," Aug. 1, 2009

Sen. Jim DeMint had 
four words to say to the designers of the new $621 million Capitol Visitors Center: "In God We Trust."

During a tour of the new entryway to the U.S. Capitol, which opened Dec. 2, 2008, the 57-year-old lawmaker from South Carolina noticed architects had ignored the phrase, which Congress established as the national motto in 1956.

Instead, a prominently displayed stone marker misidentified "E pluribus unum" as the motto. DeMint also noticed the museum's replica of the House chamber omitted "In God We Trust" despite its prominent appearance above the speaker's rostrum in the actual House.

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"There seems to be a trend of whitewashing God out of our history," a disgusted DeMint said on the Senate floor last fall. DeMint put a hold on the bill allowing the center to open, and the designers added the phrase in the House display. The marker incorrectly depicting "Out of many, one" as the nation's motto was more difficult: Even by July 4 it had been only clumsily rubbed out.

To the Republican from South Carolina elected to the Senate in 2004 after three terms in the House, those errors symbolized that the heart of the federal government's ongoing power grab is a belief among policy makers that God is not in control. DeMint fears the nation is sliding toward socialism, which he calls the enemy of freedom.

"In order for socialists to expand the power of government they have to decrease the power of religion, which empowers individuals," DeMint recently told me during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "Dependency on government reduces dependency on God."

You can't talk to DeMint long without frequently hearing the words freedom and faith. He has poured those convictions into a new book, Saving Freedom (B&H Publishing Group, 2009), which chronicles how Americans can end what DeMint calls "our abusive marriage with the federal government." The senator made a statewide book tour riding on a red-white-and-blue-splashed bus with a 1776 anthem.

DeMint has interrupted a busy Senate schedule for the extracurricular activities because he believes that the nation is in serious trouble, he said, and a bloated federal government is to blame. He writes that most members of Congress lean toward socialist policies, can't look past the next election, don't understand how freedom works, and use problems as an excuse to grow government.

In his book DeMint withholds few punches: He calls Barack Obama a "master of victimology"; describes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the "big fish drug dealers in this economic crack house of cards"; and acknowledges that he finds himself fighting Republicans as often as Democrats.

For his comments The Hill, a Washington daily, called DeMint "one of Congress' biggest bomb-throwers."

But it wasn't always like this for the mild-mannered, self-effacing businessman from Greenville, S.C., who served six relatively quiet years in the House and is known locally as more than a little shy in person.

DeMint's belief that government should do less for people ironically led him to run for political office for the first time in 1998 at the age of 47.

Few friends imagined the private DeMint in the role of pubic lawmaker. But he believed that too many of the problems plaguing local organizations and charities were the result of "well-intentioned but bad government policies that created more problems than they solved." A Christian since age 25, DeMint also said he felt God's call to run for Congress: "God uses our weaknesses sometimes more than our strengths."

In 2004, long-time South Carolina Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings announced his retirement just as DeMint reached his self-imposed limit of three House terms. With Hollings relinquishing his 39-year hold on a Senate seat, DeMint tossed his name into the election hat and beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 10 percentage points. Then the frustrations began that transformed him into more of a rebel.

Now into his fifth year in the Senate, DeMint has grown impatient with the status quo, the inertia, and the insulation from regular Americans he says characterizes the body. "I see the Senate as a real obstacle in America's effort to turn around this expansion of government," DeMint said.

DeMint's ideological rigor has hardened in what has been called the "world's most exclusive club," where he ranks 98th among senators in net worth. "I am not going to be able to persuade my colleagues to do the right things, so I am just going to have to create pain."

That pain began in 2006 when his fight against pork-barrel spending killed more than 10,000 earmark projects totaling about $17 billion-frustrating colleagues but prompting The Wall Street Journal to dub him the "taxpayers' greatest ally." Predicts University of South Carolina political scientist Charles Finocchiaro: "There certainly are not going to be public construction projects named after him in South Carolina."

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