In Iowa, in the days leading up to the caucus, one political radio spot was particularly ubiquitous: a game-show-style ad from the Perry campaign that blasted Rick Santorum’s earmark history. When the announcer in the ad asks which GOP contender supported the infamous Bridge to Nowhere, “Susie from Des Moines” answers, “Santorum.” “Correct!” the announcer bellows. “Santorum voted for the Bridge to Nowhere and a highway bill full of pork.”
Perry’s campaign isn’t the only one ready to jump on Santorum’s earmark record. Sen. John McCain said in a CNN interview yesterday, e-mailed by the Romney camp to reporters, that he and Santorum “had very strong differences on earmarking and pork-barrel spending.”
“I believe that earmarking is a gateway drug to corruption. Senator Santorum supported it and engaged in it as much as he possibly could,” continued McCain, who announced his endorsement of Romney earlier this week.
Santorum’s social-conservative values are well established. But in an election cycle fueled by the Tea Party’s drive to axe spending, he’ll no doubt face questions about his fiscal record — and his past support of earmarks is drawing especial scrutiny.
There’s no way to know for sure how many earmarks Santorum requested, since lawmakers weren’t required to attach their names to earmark requests until 2007. (Santorum served in the Senate from 1995 to 2007.) The Club for Growth, in its presidential white-paper series, claims that Santorum “requested billions of dollars for pork projects,” while the Perry campaign is alleging that Santorum requested over $1 billion in earmarks. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, views the $1 billion–plus figure as a plausible estimate. “As a matter of fact, I would probably peg it probably a little higher,” he says.
“He was an avid earmarker. It’s pretty clear, when you look back, that he basically followed the senior senator from Pennsylvania’s lead, [Sen. Arlen] Specter, who was on the Appropriations Committee,” Ellis remarks, noting that old press releases show Santorum touting earmarks he had nabbed for the Keystone State. Overall, though, Ellis says Santorum was probably in the “middle of the pack” in how much he requested in earmarks, neither defiantly opposed to the system, like McCain, nor shamelessly gorging on it, like Alaska senator Ted Stevens.
When asked about earmarks nowadays, Santorum walks a tricky tightrope between justifying his willingness to vote for earmarks and pledging respect for the current anti-earmark GOP consensus. “We appropriate funds,” Santorum said about Congress’s role in an interview Wednesday with CNN’s John King. “And as Ron Paul did, as Jim DeMint did, as just about, I think, every single member of Congress did, when you go to Congress, you make sure that when taxes go from your state to Washington, D.C., you fight to make sure you get your fair share back.”
Later on in the interview, he added, “I also said that when earmarks got abusive, that we should end them.”
Santorum is certainly not alone in having backed earmarks. When he voted for the 2005 highway bill that included Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, a $398 million project to connect a small island with the mainland, he was joined by over 40 of his Republican Senate colleagues. And when he voted against an amendment proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn to nix some of the funding for that bridge, Santorum, again, was joined by a significant chunk of Republicans in voting down the amendment.
Years later, he remains willing to defend the controversial project. “People say that I voted for ‘The Bridge to Nowhere,’” Santorum said in Iowa last week, according to the Des Moines Register. “I did. I went with the federalist argument, which is, ‘Who am I in Pennsylvania to tell Alaska what their highway priorities should be?’ You had a city that was separated from its airport, and of course in Alaska you have to travel by air, and you had to have a ferry. There were times when they couldn’t get across.”
Will he be able to overcome his earmark legacy? Right now, Santorum seems intent on using the question as a way to pivot into his more Tea Party–friendly positions about cutting entitlement spending. “I’ve come out and said I’m going to cut $5 trillion over the next five years,” Santorum told CNN. “You won’t have any room for earmarks. But what we need to do is the reform of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and food stamps and housing programs and SSI. I was the author of the Welfare Reform Act. That was serious dollars.”
“Earmarks,” he added, “are something that’s focused on by people who simply aren’t willing to take on the tough problems.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.