Advice for the New Congress from the Original Conservative Insurgent

This week, as conservative insurgents take their seats in Congress, I can't help but think that my old boss, the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), would be thrilled. Before there was a Tea Party there was the New Right, and Helms was its most successful leader. He turned his surprise election in 1972 into a three-decade run driving the Washington establishment crazy. Were Helms still alive, he would have some advice for the GOP class of 2010.

  • Ignore the national media. Once when the New York Times wrote a nasty editorial about Helms, I drafted a vigorous rebuttal. Helms smiled at me kindly and said, "Son, just so you understand: I don't care what the New York Times says about me, and nobody I care about cares what the New York Times says about me." The liberal elites were powerless over Helms because he simply did not care what they said. Neither should you.
  • Embrace obstruction. Before they dubbed Republicans the "Party of No," the Left dubbed Helms "Senator No." He wore the moniker as a badge of honor. He was unafraid to block bad nominees, bad legislation and bad treaties. If you do the same, the federal bureaucracy will come to fear you--and you will stop bad things from happening without lifting a finger. One State Department official reportedly kept a picture of Helms on the wall behind his desk--a reminder that "that S.O.B. is always looking over my shoulder."
At times you might find yourself a minority not just in Congress, but within your own party. Who cares? Do what you believe is right. Like Helms, you will find that if you stand on principle, many battles you lose today you will win years later as the country moves your way.

Helms understood that some ideas before the Senate are irredeemably flawed and need to be killed. But Helms also practiced"constructive obstruction"--such as the time he blocked the confirmation of all U.S. ambassadors until the Clinton administration agreed to negotiate on his State Department reform legislation. Eventually the administration got its ambassadors and Helms got the dismantlement of the U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Learn to obstruct constructively.

  • Learn the rules. Helms was able to say no because he mastered the rules. If you do the same, you can tie the Senate in knots and force important votes. Once, Helms was doing just that in late December, when a senator approached him and said"Jesse, if you don't relent we're going to be here singing 'Silent Night.'" Helms replied,"If I don't get my vote, we're going to be singing 'Auld Lang Syne.'" He got his vote.
  • Don't be afraid to wage losing battles. Helms often said,"The good Lord does not expect you to win, he just expects you to try." At times you might find yourself a minority not just in Congress, but within your own party. Who cares? Do what you believe is right. Like Helms, you will find that if you stand on principle, many battles you lose today you will win years later as the country moves your way.
  • Be a happy warrior. Helms was once asked by a reporter if he would allow Massachusetts Gov. William Weld to be confirmed as ambassador to Mexico. Helms winked and replied:"No way, Jose." Take tough stands, but do it with a smile instead of a scowl.
  • Be kind. Helms was hated by the left but beloved in the U.S. Senate. He always invited the Senate pages for ice cream in the senators' dining room, and he would keep the king of Jordan waiting if he saw a group of tourists in the Capitol who looked lost ("Have you come to visit your money?" he would ask). He was kind to liberals and conservatives, senators and elevator operators, and especially to his own staff, whom he referred to as his"Senate family." A reputation for kindness will serve you well--especially when you are forcing colleagues to take uncomfortable votes or miss their flights home.
  • Focus on constituent service. The people of North Carolina gave Helms the freedom to fight for his beliefs, even when they disagreed, because they knew that no one would fight harder for them when they needed him. You won't be around long to oppose runaway spending if you don't making helping your constituents your top priority.
  • Don't forget values. Helms was a spending hawk, but he also believed that"we will not long survive as a nation unless and until we restore the moral and spiritual principles that made America great in the first place." As you fight for fiscal responsibility, don't forget to fight for the unborn and the traditional family, which is the foundation of our society.

Jesse Helms was the original conservative insurgent. Follow his example, and you will leave a lasting mark in Washington. You may even shut down a government agency or two.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: Flickr user MudflapDC/Creative Commons

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