“I’ve voted toughly over the years to cut spending and to rein in entitlements. I’ve led on those things.”
— Rick Santorum, during Dec. 29, 2011, interview on NBC’s “Today Show”
“What happened after I left Congress was budgets began to explode. When I was in the Senate I voted for tough budgets, I voted for restrictions on spending, and made sure that that didn’t happen.”
— Santorum answering a question about his record of earmark spending during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Jan. 1, 2012
“I’m the only one in this race who didn’t increase an entitlement like Gov. Romney did in Massachusetts.”
-- Santorum, during campaign stop in Amherst, N.H., Jan. 7, 2012
Santorum’s comments suggest that he pushed conservative fiscal policies while serving in Congress. Fellow GOP presidential hopefuls Ron Paul and Rick Perry have challenged him on his record of promoting earmarks spending, and the first two quotes above represent his typical defense. The last comment represents a jab he took at Romney, suggesting he never increased entitlements as the former governor did with his Massachusetts health-care reform law.
We examined Santorum’s congressional record to determine the true extent of his fiscal-conservative bona fides. What did he do to reduce or increase spending? Can he really distinguish himself from Romney when it comes to entitlements? And what’s the story with those earmarks?
In terms of taxes, it’s hard to dispute Santorum’s conservative credentials. He voted at least eight times to support tax cuts and oppose tax increases. In addition, his current economic plan calls for a litany of tax reductions, including one proposal for a zero-percent rate for manufacturers.
Spending is another story. The free-market advocacy group Club for Growth describes Santorum’s fiscal record as conservative early on, but “plagued by the big-spending habits that Republicans adopted during the Bush years of 2001-2006.”
Data from the National Taxpayers Union shows that Santorum ranked in the top third among Senate Republicans for highest amount of proposed funding increases during the 107th Congress. He sponsored legislation to raise federal spending by a net $27 billion during that period, from January 2001 to January 2003.
In 2005, the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, headed by Tea Party activist and former Republican House majority leader Dick Armey, rated Santorum 63 percent in terms of following a conservative spending agenda. He fared better the next year with a rating of 83 percent.
The National Journal rated Santorum 65 percent on conservative fiscal policy in 2005, putting him well below current House majority leader Eric Cantor (88 percent), but above libertarian GOP candidate Ron Paul (46 percent) and McCain (52 percent).
The Club for Growth also pointed out that Santorum voted to increase congressional pay every year from 2001 through 2003.
In terms of entitlements, the former senator has called for “lock box” legislation to prevent the government from spending Social Security funds. He also supported the introduction of private accounts to the program as an alternative form of financing.
Beyond Social Security, Santorum helped author the welfare-reform act of 1996. That legislation placed time limits on welfare eligibility and required most recipients to find work or participate in training programs. It ultimately reduced the welfare rolls, but not without considerable help from a booming economy.
Santorum also voted for and boasted about his support for Medicare Part D, which provided prescription-drug benefits for seniors. The program passed unanimously in the Senate, but made it through the House with a one-vote margin. Most importantly, it added a new Medicare entitlement that costs taxpayers about $60 million a year, thereby contradicting the candidate’s claim that he never added entitlements like Romney.
Santorum has proven himself a strong proponent of balanced budgets, supporting all proposals aimed at stopping deficits both during and after his time in office. He also co-sponsored the unsuccessful balanced-budget amendment of 1995, calling for the resignation of a top Senate Republican who cast the deciding no vote on that legislation.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of Santorum’s record is his appetite for so-called pork barrel spending. The Club for Growth described him as a prolific earmarker, citing his support for the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” project as a primary example — McCain and former running mate Sarah Palin turned that project into the poster child for earmark abuse during the 2008 election.
The candidate has defended his earmarking habits time and again, describing the practice as the best way to keep spending power in the hands of Congress instead of the executive branch.
“I’ve had a lot of earmarks,” Santorum said during a 2009 interview on Fox News. “In fact, I’m proud of all the earmarks I’ve put in bills. I think members of Congress should be able to say where money should be spent, just so long as they’re open and available for the public to see.”
The former senator later supported a moratorium on earmarks as the practice grew increasingly unpopular.
“There was abuse of this process, and I agree with that there was an abuse, and it was leading to more spending,” he said during a “Meet the Press” interview Jan. 1. “It was leading to bigger spending bills, and it had to end, and I supported it, and I support it ending now.”
We found only one prior example of Santorum calling for an end to earmarking. In 2010, he told a New Hampshire audience: “I think the American public has spoken, and they don’t want Congress doing it. And my feeling is that if the American people believe that this is an element of whether we can trust you or not, we have to show that we want their trust, so I’m absolutely for banning earmarks.”
Santorum’s campaign did not respond to questions for this column.
THE PINOCCHIO TEST
Santorum pushed for balanced budget amendments and showed strong support for lower taxes, earning him a certain level of fiscal conservative bona fides. But he also proved to be a prodigious spender and earmarker.
In terms of earmarking, not all conservatives will fault Santorum for catering to constituents, but few voters of any stripe will tolerate projects like the Bridge to Nowhere — which had little, if anything, to do with the candidate’s home state of Pennsylvania. The former senator eventually supported a moratorium on earmarks, but his comments suggest his change of heart came in response to public sentiment rather than out of principle.
As for entitlements, Santorum never supported an increase as broad-based as Romney’s health-care reform law, but he did vote for an expensive new prescription-drug program for Medicare recipients.
Overall, Santorum’s actions haven’t always matched his rhetoric on fiscal policy. He earns two Pinocchios for characterizing himself as a budget hawk.
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