(Jae C. Hong, AP)

“The debt-to-GDP ratio — which is now over 100 percent — when I came to the Senate, it was 68 percent of GDP. When I left the Senate, it was 64 percent of GDP. So government as a size of the economy went down when I was in the United States Senate.”

“What happened in the earmark process ... was that members of Congress would ask formally, publicly request these things, put them on paper, and have them allocated, and have them voted on in committee, have them voted on on the floor of the Senate.”

“The Weekly Standard just did a review ... and they said that I was the most fiscally conservative senator in the Congress in the 12 years that I was there. My ratings with the National Taxpayers Union were As or Bs; they were very high from the Citizens Against Government Waste. I got a hero award.”

“I was out there as a Republican senator, a conservative voting record, over a 90 percent conservative voting record from the American Conservative Union. By the way, Ron, you ranked 145th, in the bottom half of Republicans this year, in a conservative voting record from that same organization.”
— GOP candidate Rick Santorum during the CNN debate, Feb. 23, 2012

These were Rick Santorum’s responses after Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul attacked his record on spending, something those two Santorum rivals have done all week.

The former Pennsylvania lawmaker noted that debt as a percentage of gross national product actually dropped during his time in the Senate, suggesting his spending policies were perfectly well in line with conservative principles. He defended his earmarks by saying the process was open to the public, hinting that he had nothing to hide. And he threw out a list of positive ratings from conservative watchdog groups as proof that he promoted fiscal restraint.

We checked the facts to determine whether Santorum defended his credentials with legitimate claims. We provided a fairly comprehensive review of the former senator’s fiscal record in a previous column. For this one, we’ll stick to just his remarks during the debate.

The Facts

Santorum is on to something with his comment about debt-to-GDP ratio: It’s a logical way to put debt in context. That’s because inflation and economic growth cause the debt number to rise almost automatically over time. Thus, the most accurate way to gauge the impact of debt is to measure it as a percentage of economic output.

During Santorum’s time in the Senate (1995-2006), the gross public debt-to-GDP ratio fell from about 66 percent to 63 percent. The candidate made a correct assertion in that regard. (The gross debt includes intergovernmental holdings such as government bonds held by Social Security and Medicare; some analysts prefer to focus on just publicly-held debt, which is a smaller figure.)

Regardless of the lower numbers during Santorum’s tenure, the debt-to-GDP ratio does not reflect one lawmaker’s fiscal policies, but rather those of Congress (and presidential administrations) as a whole. Thus, the reduction doesn’t negate Santorum’s prolific earmarking habits, which couldn’t possibly do anything to improve the percentage. The former senator might have a legitimate argument in this regard if he’d been a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but he never served on that panel.

(It is important to remember, however, that earmarks have always represented a relatively tiny part of the federal budget. The practice may be distasteful to some, but eliminating them won’t make a big dent in the deficit.)

As for earmarks, Santorum staunchly supported them for years, and he defends his own use of the funding mechanism to this day. He turned against the provisions in 2010, when public fury over so-called “pork-barrel spending” intensified. That year, he said earmarking finally had to end because lawmakers were abusing the system.

Santorum is hardly one to talk about misuse of earmarks. The conservative-leaning Club for Growth wrote in a white paper that he supported and made exceptional use of the provisions, noting that he “requested billions of dollars for pork projects in Pennsylvania while he was in Congress.”

Here’s one example the group cited:

He voted for the 2005 highway bill that included thousands of wasteful earmarks, including the Bridge to Nowhere. In fact, in a separate vote, Santorum had the audacity to vote to continue funding the Bridge to Nowhere rather than send the money to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

During the debate, Santorum defended his penchant for earmarking by insisting that the process was open to the public. But that wasn’t the case until he left office. Congress passed reforms to deal with the issue in 2007.

As further proof that the process wasn’t transparent, the Seattle Times has detailed the extreme pains it had to go through to track earmarks for a serial report that found, among other things, that Washington lawmakers had inserted $17.65 million in special provisions to force the Navy and Coast Guard to buy speedboats they didn’t ask for and didn’t want. No one could find a use for them either.

Santorum oddly accused Romney of misrepresenting the truth about earmarks when it was actually he who was wangling for credibility in this case.

In terms of positive ratings from conservative watchdog groups, we’ll address those one at a time.

The Weekly Standard never said Santorum was the most fiscally conservative senator during his tenure. It said “one could certainly make the case” for that argument considering the Democratic leanings of the state he represented. That’s a far cry from crowning him as the undisputed champion of penny-wise policies.

In 2006, Citizens Against Government Waste rated Santorum in the top one-fourth of all 55 Republican senators for fiscal conservatism, as our colleagues at FactCheck.org noted. CAGW also awarded him its “hero” rating — for members who achieve at least an 80 percent — four out of his 12 years in the Senate. His lifetime record met the “hero” criteria as well.

The National Taxpayers Union graded Santorum a B+, lower than Ron Paul, but better than the most Republican colleagues in the Senate during more than half his years serving in that chamber. In terms of numerical scores, Paul bested the former Pennsylvania senator 90.75 to 75.2 for career average.

However, Santorum achieved a lifetime rating of 88.1 percent with the American Conservative Union as of 2006, his final year in office. By comparison, Paul’s lifetime rating was 82.85 percent in 2009, the last year on record with the group.

The Pinocchio Test

Santorum earns mixed marks for the way he defended his fiscal record. His argument about the debt ceiling was factually and contextually correct. But his remarks about the transparency of the earmarking process were dead wrong. As for his ratings with conservative organizations, there’s no consensus among those groups. The only thing they seem to agree on is that he had some not-so-conservative years toward the end of his tenure.

Overall, the former senator earns two Pinocchios for his debate comments.

Two Pinocchios

★NOTE: This article has been updated. A previous version erred in comparing the debt-to-GDP ratios for the U.S. and Germany, using public debt for Germany and gross debt for the U.S. The result was an apples-to-oranges comparison that made gross debt look much higher in the U.S. than in Germany.

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