Blunt Iowa Senator Pursues Ministries

Associated Press/February 25, 2008

Ankeny, Iowa - He's been in Washington for more than 30 years, but U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley describes himself as a farmer.

And like many Midwest farmers, the Iowa Republican has an innate suspicion of lavish living.

It's a trait that has led him into high-profile fights against the Smithsonian Institution and the Pentagon. Most recently, he's focused on free-spending TV evangelists and universities with billion-dollar endowments.

Grassley said he doesn't want to pick fights, but when organizations seek tax-exempt status, they've got to play by certain rules.

"They're non-profits, like anybody else I looked into," said Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee. "I've sent them some letters because I want some information. If they want to cooperate that's good, I expect they will. If they don't, they'll be the first people since a fellow named Abramoff, and he's in a jail cell."

Grassley's comment about the now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff is typical of the senator - blunt, opinionated and apparently without concern for the political repercussions.

It's a big reason the 74-year-old senator is by far the most popular politician in Iowa, winning his last election with 70 percent of the vote.

Some of the six Christian ministries contacted by Grassley's office have argued that his questions about high pay, perks and private jets amount to a violation of their constitutional protections.

"Senator Grassley's request clearly disregards the privacy protections of the church under law and appears to cross the line of constitutional guarantees for churches," one of the ministries under scrutiny, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, said in a statement.

And Gary McCaleb, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a religious liberty legal group, criticized the tone of Grassley's inquiry.

"From the get-go he's acted more like an investigator and not at all like a senator on this and that's unnerving. He has a right to get facts, but this has looked, felt and smelled like an enforcement action," McCaleb said.

Grassley seems bemused by the outcry.

"I got no interest in doctrine. I believe in Jesus Christ, too, so that's fine," said Grassley, a Baptist. "I don't intend to violate the First Amendment, the Second Amendment or any other amendments."

Grassley said his questioning of televangelists is a simple matter of wanting to ensure that non-profit organizations comply with the tax laws that are essential to their operations.

He said it's the same reason he led calls for an investigation of lavish spending and other business practices at the Smithsonian. That inquiry ultimately led to the resignation last year of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small.

"I've taken the same approach on any number of issues like this over the years," Grassley said.

The Democratic chairman of the Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, brushed off criticism by the ministries.

"I've never known Senator Grassley to pick on anyone unfairly," Baucus said. "He has been focused on non-profits for a long time. And he's a longtime supporter of whistleblowers."

Still, Grassley seems to hold a certain disdain for the six ministries he has questioned about salaries and reports of mansions and private jets. In launching the inquiry, Grassley quipped that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a Rolls Royce.

Despite the angry reply from some of the ministries, Grassley hasn't seemed to pay a price in Iowa, where evangelicals are an important part of the state Republican Party.

Part of Grassley's appeal in Iowa could be his background. He grew up on a farm near tiny New Hartford, about 120 miles northeast of Des Moines. He paid his way through the University of Northern Iowa, where he met his wife-to-be Barbara on a blind date.

Grassley was elected to the Iowa Legislature in 1958, then to the U.S. House in 1974. He was elected to the Senate in 1980.

Although his stubbornness can leave colleagues frustrated, they rarely question his motivation.

"He is someone who is refreshing here. He's plain spoken, he's kind of a character," said Brian Darling, the director of U.S. Senate relations at the Heritage Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank.

And to those who see a contradiction between a man who said he accepted Jesus as his lord and savior at age 11 and his investigation of church ministries, Grassley disagrees.

Speaking to about 500 students at Faith Baptist Bible College in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, Grassley said both are extensions of his basic principles.

"If I have a question about something, I just ask it," he said. "And if someone asks me a question, I just answer it."

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