Sen. Jim DeMint's cynical advice to incoming Tea Partiers.

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Nov. 3 2010 6:48 PM

Corrupting Committees

Sen. Jim DeMint's cynical advice to incoming Tea Partiers.

Read Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.

Sen. Jim DeMint.
Sen. Jim DeMint

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., probably the only Tea Party incumbent on Election Day, was re-elected by a comfortable margin of 61 percent to 28 percent. With little need to worry about his own prospects, he concentrated on writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed ("Welcome, Senate Conservatives") advising freshman tea partiers on how to navigate the moral cesspool atop Capitol Hill (where he has labored for more than a decade, first in the House and, since 2005, in the Senate). Most of DeMint's advice is benign and predictable (don't get co-opted by lobbyists; don't request earmarks; hire likeminded staff; don't value re-election above all else). Some of it is a dig at Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell ("don't seek titles"). But one recommendation on his list struck me as novel: Avoid committee assignments.

"[B]eware of committees," DeMint wrote. "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."

What's new isn't DeMint's suggestion that committee membership matters more in the House (which has 335 more members and keeps a tighter rein on floor action) than in the Senate. Rather, it's DeMint's conclusion that because committee membership matters somewhat less in the Senate, it should be avoided altogether. This is a new, bracingly nihilistic notion about what it means to be a U.S. senator.

"I never heard the avoid-committee advice before," the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann, who's forgotten more about the U.S. Congress than I'll ever know, informed me by e-mail. "Committees are less important in the Senate than in the House," Mann agreed, "but still essential for getting into the guts of legislation and learning something about the substance of programs and their implementation."

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"Perhaps," Mann mused, DeMint "is afraid that his new minions will go native on committees and dilute their role in the revolutionary vanguard." Action equals corruption. Mere knowledge equals corruption. Ignorance is strength.

DeMint (whose office ignored my request that he elaborate) would probably dispute this interpretation. After all, "a senator can legislate on any matter from the Senate floor"! But that's a ridiculous exaggeration. Legislating from the floor typically means introducing either an amendment or a filibuster. Amendments, Mann notes, "aren't really a satisfactory alternative" to crafting a bill and seeing it through the committee process, "especially given the filibuster-induced paralysis in the Senate chamber." Not unless—could it be?—paralysis through filibuster or the sponsorship of mischievous killer amendments is the whole idea. DeMint wrote his op-ed before the election results were in and probably assumed (somewhat disloyally, it seems to me) that the Democrats would maintain their Senate majority, which they did. He therefore assumed it would remain necessary for any self-respecting Republican to emulate Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who  sings in the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers, "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It."

Does DeMint actually mean what he's saying, or is he simply posturing, trying to establish himself as more contemptuous of bipartisanship than any other member? Well, let's take a look at his own committee memberships. He's on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee; the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee; the Foreign Relations Committee (perhaps the clubbiest in the entire U.S. Senate); and the Joint Economic Committee. That's four. I asked Mann: Is four a lot, or a little?  "The mean number of standing committee assignments in the Senate is 3.4," Mann explained. In other words, DeMint sits on slightly more committees than the average senator. If you count subcommittees, Mann added, the mean number of committee assignments is 11.7. DeMint sits on 10 subcommittees—on three of them he's the ranking member; that is, the Republican most likely to consort with the Democratic enemy—bringing his total up to 14. That's more than two committees above the average!

We must conclude that either DeMint hates himself for being unable to overcome a debilitating committee-sitting addiction or he's a hypocrite offering advice that he would never be foolish enough to follow himself.

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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