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June 21, 2014 9:29 AM Rick Santorum is Not a Populist

By Martin Longman

Back in 2012, when Rick Santorum was riding high and winning primaries and caucuses in his competition with Mitt Romney, Simon van Zuylen-Wood became concerned about the coverage of Santorum’s campaign. He wasn’t buying Santorum’s pose as an economic populist.

Santorum has made his post-Senate career doing the sort of quasi-lobbying that helped sink Newt Gingrich’s campaign in Iowa. But in fact, while still in office, he was a central actor in an even more sordid venture: The K Street Project. Started in 1989 by GOP strategist Grover Norquist and brought to prominence by former House majority leader Tom DeLay in 1995, the K Street Project was a highly organized effort to funnel Republican Congressional staffers into jobs at lobbying firms, trade organizations, and corporations, while attempting to block Democrats from those same posts. From 2001 until 2006, Santorum was the Project’s point man for the Senate, while House Majority Whip Roy Blunt manned the House side.

It’s the same kind of consideration that is ruffling Igor Volsky’s feathers at Think Progress today. It’s one thing for Santorum to talk-up the working man and call for a raise in the minimum wage, but what about his history? Volsky is annoyed because Santorum actually defended income inequality on the campaign trail in 2012, but that hypocrisy pales in comparison to his work on the K Street Project.

In the July/August 2003 issue of the Washington Monthly, Nicholas Confessore exhaustively detailed Rick Santorum’s role in turning the GOP into a lobbyists’ cesspool.

When presidents pick someone to fill a job in the government, it’s typically a very public affair. The White House circulates press releases and background materials. Congress holds a hearing, where some members will pepper the nominee with questions and others will shower him or her with praise. If the person in question is controversial or up for an important position, they’ll rate a profile or two in the papers. But there’s one confirmation hearing you won’t hear much about. It’s convened every Tuesday morning by Rick Santorum, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, in the privacy of a Capitol Hill conference room, for a handpicked group of two dozen or so Republican lobbyists. Occasionally, one or two other senators or a representative from the White House will attend. Democrats are not invited, and neither is the press.

The chief purpose of these gatherings is to discuss jobs—specifically, the top one or two positions at the biggest and most important industry trade associations and corporate offices centered around Washington’s K Street, a canyon of nondescript office buildings a few blocks north of the White House that is to influence-peddling what Wall Street is to finance. In the past, those people were about as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, a practice that ensured K Street firms would have clout no matter which party was in power. But beginning with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and accelerating in 2001, when George W. Bush became president, the GOP has made a determined effort to undermine the bipartisan complexion of K Street.

And Santorum’s Tuesday meetings are a crucial part of that effort. Every week, the lobbyists present pass around a list of the jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum’s responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican—a senator’s chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors. “The underlying theme was [to] place Republicans in key positions on K Street. Everybody taking part was a Republican and understood that that was the purpose of what we were doing,” says Rod Chandler, a retired congressman and lobbyist who has participated in the Santorum meetings. “It’s been a very successful effort.”

This is the context in which we should consider the following:

The former Pennsylvania senator, who is exploring a 2016 presidential bid, quoted President Ronald Reagan to make the case for a more robust government that can provide assistance to lower and middle income Americans. He argued that the Republican would “be appalled today” by GOP lawmakers who tailor their policy prescriptions to conservative orthodoxy rather than the economic problems at hand. “One of [Reagan’s] famous quotes was, ‘government isn’t the answer, government is the problem.’ But here is what he said in the beginning of that quote, ‘in this current crisis,’” Santorum declared. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a different crisis in America, we have a crisis of people in the middle of America feeling disconnected to this country and the opportunity they can provide.”

Santorum, who just published a book focused on economic populism, called on the GOP to adopt an agenda “that speaks across the economic spectrum” and become “the party of the worker, not just the party of business.” That agenda includes a greater focus on American-made manufacturing, vocational education, and building “the infrastructure of America.”

“Republicans, it’s okay for people to just work from 9 to 5 and have the opportunity to raise a family on the wages that you make,” he added, reiterating that he is open to raising the federal minimum wage.

The truth about Santorum was revealed by Mike Lux in 2008 who overheard Santorum railing against John McCain during a Amtrak train ride. Ostensibly, Santorum was calling everyone in his phone book to oppose McCain because McCain was insufficiently dedicated to the Conservative Movement, but the reality is that McCain was opposed to pork barrel spending and the K Street Project. For this reason, Santorum saw him as a mortal enemy and was okay with Rudy Giuliani despite his moderate positions on many social issues.

Like Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas, Santorum has made a brand for himself as an extreme social conservative, but it’s a cloak that disguises his real agenda. It might be tempting to welcome Santorum’s reasonable-sounding rhetoric about the working man today, but it’s a sham.

Since losing his Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2006, Santorum has used his connections to land a series of highly-paid jobs. Consol Energy, a natural gas company specializing in “hydrofracking” and the fifth-largest donor to his 2006 campaign, paid him $142,000 for consulting work. He also earned $395,000 sitting on the board of Universal Health Services (UHS), a for-profit hospital chain whose CEO made contributions to his Senate campaigns and which stood to benefit from a big hike in Medicare payments Santorum proposed in 2003. (Incidentally, the Department of Justice sued UHS for Medicare and Medicaid fraud during Santorum’s four-year tenure on its board.) Santorum also earned paychecks from a religious advocacy group, a lobbying firm, and a think tank. For pushing legislation benefitting UHS and several other companies, one ethics group named Santorum to its “most corrupt Senators” list.

He is not and never had been looking out for the little guy.

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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