Mitt Romney is now arguing that Rick Santorum’s record exposes him as one of those Republicans who “act like Democrats” once they get to Washington. Romney surrogate Tim Pawlenty adds that Santorum “clearly has been part of the big-spending establishment in Congress.” Another Romney surrogate, former senator Jim Talent, says of Santorum, “He certainly has been outspoken on social issues . . . but when you get outside those issues into fiscal, spending, regulatory issues, his record shows that he’s been in the liberal wing of the Republican party.”
This is clearly emerging as one of Romney’s two prominent lines of attack against Santorum, the other — a related one — being that Santorum is a “Washington insider.” But since the only reason Romney didn’t become a “Washington insider” himself is that he failed to win election in either of his two bids for federal office, and since the vast majority of the Republican party’s Washington insiders are backing Romney, this claim is likely to persuade precious few GOP voters. That leaves Romney with only one real line of attack against Santorum: that the former Pennsylvania senator’s record isn’t that of a fiscal conservative.
So, is Romney’s claim true? Was Santorum a spendthrift in the Senate? Fortunately, credible third party analysis is available to help us answer this question, so we need not merely accept the Romney campaign’s verdict as the final word on the matter.
The National Taxpayers Union (NTU) has been rating members of Congress for 20 years. NTU is an independent, non-partisan organization that — per its mission statement — “mobilizes elected officials and the general public on behalf of tax relief and reform, lower and less wasteful spending, individual liberty, and free enterprise.” Steve Forbes serves on its board of directors.
For each session of Congress, NTU scores each member on an A-to-F scale. NTU weights members’ votes based on those votes’ perceived effect on both the immediate and future size of the federal budget. Those who get A’s are among “the strongest supporters of responsible tax and spending policies”; they receive NTU’s “Taxpayers’ Friend Award.” B’s are “good” scores, C’s are “minimally acceptable” scores, D’s are “poor” scores, and F’s earn their recipients membership in the “Big Spender” category. There is no grade inflation whatsoever, as we shall see.
NTU’s scoring paints a radically different picture of Santorum’s 12-year tenure in the Senate (1995 through 2006) than one would glean from the rhetoric of the Romney campaign. Fifty senators served throughout Santorum’s two terms: 25 Republicans, 24 Democrats, and 1 Republican/Independent. On a 4-point scale (awarding 4 for an A, 3.3 for a B+, 3 for a B, 2.7 for a B-, etc.), those 50 senators’ collective grade point average (GPA) across the 12 years was 1.69 — which amounts to a C-. Meanwhile, Santorum’s GPA was 3.66 — or an A-. Santorum’s GPA placed him in the top 10 percent of senators, as he ranked 5th out of 50.
Across the 12 years in question, only 6 of the 50 senators got A’s in more than half the years. Santorum was one of them. He was also one of only 7 senators who never got less than a B. (Jim Talent served only during Santorum’s final four years, but he always got less than a B, earning a B- every year and a GPA of 2.7.) Moreover, while much of the Republican party lost its fiscal footing after George W. Bush took office — although it would be erroneous to say that the Republicans were nearly as profligate as the Democrats — Santorum was the only senator who got A’s in every year of Bush’s first term. None of the other 49 senators could match Santorum’s 4.0 GPA over that span.
This much alone would paint an impressive portrait of fiscal conservatism on Santorum’s part. Yet it doesn’t even take into account a crucial point: Santorum was representing Pennsylvania.
Based on how each state voted in the three presidential elections over that period (1996, 2000, and 2004), nearly two-thirds of senators represented states that were to the right of Pennsylvania. In those three presidential elections, Pennsylvania was, on average, 3 points to the left of the nation as a whole. Pennsylvanians backed the Democratic presidential nominee each time, while the nation as a whole chose the Republican in two out of three contests.