As the junior senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum shepherded welfare reform through the U.S. Senate in 1996. Given his limited tenure — he’d been elected to the Senate only two years before — the fact that Majority Leader Bob Dole selected Santorum to lead the effort is nothing short of remarkable, Santorum’s former colleagues say. It also is a testament to an overlooked virtue of the ex-senator’s: his pragmatism.
Santorum first entered the House in 1991; two years later, he became ranking member of the subcommittee on human resources. “How I got to be ranking member of that subcommittee does say a lot, I’m afraid, about how Republicans used to view welfare — and too many still do,” Santorum wrote in his 2005 book, It Takes a Family. “Something like five Republican members more senior than I on the committee chose to claim a regular seat on either the Health or Trade subcommittee instead of taking the ranking position. . . . None of my Republican colleagues saw this subcommittee as particularly important to them or their constituents.”
But Santorum did. Joining forces with the Republican staffer on the committee, Ron Haskins, Santorum dove into the details of the issue and emerged ready to do battle with defenders of the status quo. Haskins, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, remembers Santorum’s reign fondly. “He’s a great leader,” Haskins says. “He knows what he wants, but he’s calm and he’s reasonable. And he listens to people — it’s very different from his public reputation. He’s willing to compromise.”
Santorum showed that willingness in designing the Republican bill. Eager to call Pres. Bill Clinton’s bluff — he had promised to “end welfare as we know it” in the 1992 campaign — Santorum and the House Republicans introduced their version of welfare reform in 1993. “When we introduced our bill, the liberals savaged it, calling it cruel, heartless, and mean-spirited,” Santorum writes in his book. He continues with the characteristic sarcasm that has somewhat unfairly won him a reputation for acerbity: “We had actually had the audacity to call for time limits on welfare for the able-bodied!”
Still, there was dissension in the ranks. Conservative activists were pushing House Republicans to write even stricter restrictions into the bill, in an attempt to draw a sharp contrast between the parties for the 1994 congressional elections. “They wanted to end welfare benefits for teen moms who had babies,” Haskins remembers. “We felt that was crazy: First, it would never pass, but second, it would label Republicans as cruel.”
But conservatives, who saw 1994 as their chance to win control of the House, were adamant that a compromise would only spoil their chances. “I wouldn’t blame Santorum, but [welfare-reform advocate] Clay Shaw actually wanted to go and do a compromise deal in 1994,” remembers Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who advised congressional Republicans on the issue. “Given the salience of welfare reform at that time, it would have been a disaster for Republicans and a gift to Clinton.”
Concerned with winning bipartisan support for the bill, Santorum and his ilk were more cautious. They avoided putting these stronger provisions in the bill. After Santorum won election to the Senate in 1994, he took up the cause on the floor of the upper chamber. As chair of the finance committee, which had jurisdiction in this area, Sen. Bob Packwood was meant to the lead the charge, but sexual-harassment charges distracted him and eventually lead to his resignation in September 1995.
In response, Dole assigned Santorum to be the floor leader on the bill, a remarkable appointment for Santorum in Haskin’s eyes. “He gets elected to the Senate, he’s not on the finance committee, he’s a freshman, and Dole basically puts him in charge of floor operation on welfare. This is completely unheard of, and the reason he did it is Santorum is really, really smart,” Haskins concludes.
On the floor, Santorum went head-to-head with liberal titans Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ted Kennedy. In July 1996, Santorum directly confronted Moynihan’s lacerating criticism that the bill “invite[d] calamity.”
“I found it odd that he used the term,” Santorum mused aloud, “that the bill before us invites calamity, right after a very eloquent and fact-filled dissertation on the calamity that has been created by this welfare system, that calamity of illegitimacy in our civilization.”
Republicans in the House appreciated the strong ally they had in Santorum. “It was nice to have an ally who understood it,” says former congressman Clay Shaw, who assumed leadership on the issue after Santorum left the House.
In August 1996, having vetoed welfare reform twice before, Clinton finally yielded and signed the Republican bill into law. And Haskins to this day emphasizes how important Santorum was to that success. “Publicly he has a reputation for being a wild man,” Haskins says. “He’s made some fairly radical statements about abortion and gay marriage. But in the way he actually works behind the scenes and working with Democrats and Republicans, he’s very reasoned, calm, and dispassionate.”
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.