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Was Santorum a Senate Spendthrift?

11:00 AM, Feb 15, 2012 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON AND ANDY WICKERSHAM
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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.” 

Rick Santorum

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.

Among the roughly one-third of senators (18 out of 50) who represented states that — based on this measure — were at least as far to the left as Pennsylvania, Santorum was the most fiscally conservative.  Even more telling was the canyon between him and the rest.  After Santorum’s overall 3.66 GPA, the runner-up GPA among this group was 2.07, registered by Olympia Snowe (R., Maine).  Arlen Specter, Santorum’s fellow Pennsylvania Republican, was next, with a GPA of 1.98.  The average GPA among senators who represented states at least as far left as Pennsylvania was 0.52 — or barely a D-.

But Santorum also crushed the senators in the other states.  Those 32 senators, representing states that on average were 16 points to the right of Pennsylvania in the presidential elections, had an average GPA of 2.35 — a C+.

In fact, considering the state he was representing, one could certainly make the case that Santorum was the most fiscally conservative senator during his tenure.  The only four senators whose GPAs beat Santorum’s represented states that were 2 points (Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire), 10 points (Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona), 25 points (Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma), and 36 points (Republican Craig Thomas of Wyoming) to the right of Pennsylvania in the presidential elections.  Moreover, of these four, only Kyl (with a GPA of 3.94) beat Santorum by as much as a tenth of a point.  It’s an open question whether a 3.94 from Arizona is more impressive than a 3.66 from Pennsylvania.

So, if Santorum was among — and perhaps even topped the list of — the most fiscally conservative senators during this period, who were the least fiscally conservative?  That prize would have to go to the two North Dakota senators, who despite representing a state that voted 23 points to the right of the national average in the presidential elections, managed to achieve GPAs of 0.08 (Democrat Kent Conrad) and 0.00 (Democrat Byron Dorgan).  Honorable mentions would have to go to Max Baucus (D., Mont.), who got a 0.84 GPA in a state that was 18 points to the right of the national average; Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who got a 0.08 GPA in a state that was 4 points to the right of average; and Utah Republicans Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, who each barely cleared a 3.0 (3.11 for Bennett, 3.08 for Hatch) despite representing the state that, in the presidential elections, was the nation’s most right-leaning (38 points to the right of average).

As for Santorum’s potential opponent in the fall, Barack Obama’s three years in the Senate (2005 through 2007) overlapped only with Santorum’s final two years.  (In 2008, Obama effectively left the Senate to campaign for President and therefore didn’t cast enough votes for NTU to score him that year.)  In both of the years that the two men overlapped (2005 and 2006), as well as throughout Obama’s three years’ worth of preparation for the presidency, Obama’s GPA was 0.00 — a rock-solid F. 

Now that’s acting like a Democrat — something Santorum has never done.

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