Santorum didn't fight establishment, he joined it

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pa., shaking hands on the campaign trail in Michigan on Monday.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pa., shaking hands on the campaign trail in Michigan on Monday. (ERIC GRAY / Associated Press)
Posted: February 28, 2012

When he first ran for Congress from Western Pennsylvania in 1990, Rick Santorum campaigned as an outsider, attacking his Democratic opponent as a creature of Washington too far removed from voters to understand their concerns.

But over time, Santorum didn't so much fight the Washington establishment as join it.

He mastered the complex dance members of Congress had to learn in order to thrive, and he put those skills to work again after he lost his 2006 reelection bid to Democrat Bob Casey Jr.

As a member of the Senate from 1995 to 2007, Santorum pushed for hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for institutions and businesses at home in Pennsylvania, according to one analysis.

And after he left the Senate, he signed on as a consultant or board member with industries and firms with business on Capitol Hill, earning millions.

Now, as Santorum battles former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, his record of doling out earmarks and his lucrative post-Senate employment are receiving renewed scrutiny.

"Basically, he played the game," said Stephen Ellis, a spokesman for the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which estimated Santorum pushed through a billion dollars or more in earmarks during his Senate career. "He was no Sen. [Ted] Stevens [of Alaska] or Sen. [Robert] Byrd [of West Virginia], but he did play the game."

Early in his Senate career, Santorum pushed back hard against a proposal for a wide-ranging investigation of the nation's campaign finance system, which then as now was sharply criticized for giving moneyed interests an edge.

And he succeeded: Senate leaders narrowed the scope of the probe to Democratic and Clinton White House fund-raising abuses in the 1996 campaign.

"This is a man who served two terms in the Senate . . . that de facto makes someone an insider," said Robin Kolodny, an associate professor of political science at Temple University, who has followed Santorum's career and credits him with reaching across the aisle to Democrats on some issues. "It would be impossible to be a real outsider."

With polls showing close races between Santorum and Romney in Tuesday's Michigan and Arizona primaries, Romney and his supporters have pummeled the former senator as a career politician - a "Washington insider," as one ad puts it - who became all too comfortable with Washington elites.

For his part, Santorum points out that Romney ran for the Senate in 1994 and lost to Ted Kennedy. "Here's the guy who was outside of Washington, who was not a senator or congressman - not because he didn't try - he just never got elected," Santorum said last week.

After leaving the Senate, Santorum followed what is for many former lawmakers a well-traveled path: he found lucrative employment with companies and firms trying to push legislative and regulatory agendas in Washington.

He earned $1.3 million from the beginning of 2010 through the first half of 2011, a leap from the $190,000 he earned in government salary and book royalties during his last Senate year, according to financial disclosure forms filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics for his presidential run.

Among his income sources was the American Continental Group, a major Washington lobbying firm founded by David Urban, former chief of staff to then-Sen. Arlen Specter, which paid Santorum $65,000 as a consultant.

For Pennsylvania companies, the firm is known as the go-to source for lobbying and government-relations work in Washington. Its clients include Comcast, Air Products and Chemicals Inc., and Cephalon, the biopharmaceutical company.

Santorum also served as a director of Universal Health Services, a King of Prussia-based for-profit hospital chain that relies heavily on federal health care funding. He earned $395,414 in directors' fees before stepping down from Universal's board last year when he declared his run for the White House.

He took in $142,500 in consulting fees from the Pennsylvania oil and gas firm Consol Energy, and earned $23,000 in 2010 as an Inquirer columnist, among other income sources.

He was equally prolific during his Senate career in pushing special appropriations under the much-criticized earmark process, in which members of Congress doled out billions in aid to hometown interests, with little transparency.

According to one Senate-issued 2004 news release, Santorum "traveled to the Commonwealth to present checks to support funding for projects in Westmoreland and Somerset Counties," including $750,000 for a water supply engineering study in Somerset County, and $50,000 to the Private Industry Council of Export, Pa. (population, about 900) for a computer-based program to "measure and evaluate skills of job seekers."

Such past largesse on behalf of constituents has drawn heat from the conservative Club for Growth, which has railed against earmarks and pushes for less government spending and lower taxes as a means of economic revival.

While praising Santorum for leading welfare reform efforts on Capitol Hill in the 1990s and for pushing to clamp down on farm subsidies, the group said "his record is plagued by the big spending habits that Republicans adopted during the Bush years of 2001-2006." It was particularly critical of Santorum for signing on to the federal prescription drug plan for seniors, called Medicare Part D, and "No Child Left Behind," the Bush administration initiative Santorum now says he regrets having supported.

From the start, Santorum had his insurgent side, railing against colleagues who had overdrawn their House bank accounts. He also pressed for an end to taxpayer-subsidized haircuts and meals for members of Congress.

"It was a small thing, but we couldn't change Washington until we changed the culture of showing senators and congressmen it's not their money, it's your money," John Brabender, one of Santorum's closest campaign advisers, told Bloomberg News. Efforts to reach Santorum for an interview for this story unsuccessful.

In 1997, two years after joining the Senate, Santorum objected when party leaders proposed the Senate launch an investigation of campaign abuses during the 1996 election, if it were to include a broader look at the campaign finance system. Though his objection flew in the face of party leadership, Santorum stood his ground and prevailed.

In the end, the probe focused almost entirely on Democratic campaign abuses.

Santorum still campaigns as an insurgent. Last Tuesday, he told an Arizona audience that as one of the young congressmen exposing the House bank scandal, he had had "the courage to stand up inside the institution and make the changes that were necessary. That's what we need again in Washington, D.C."


Contact Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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