The Sordid K Street Past of Rick Santorum

by Simon van Zuylen-Wood | January 6, 2012

Rick Santorum has received, and courted, plenty of comparisons with Mike Huckabee since his near-victory in the Iowa Caucuses, but not all of them have been earned. Yes, like Huckabee in 2008, Santorum has been heavily dependent on grassroots campaigning, with direct appeals to evangelical voters, and a veneer of folksy, blue-collar economic populism. But the comparison ought to stop there. What Santorum cannot match is Huckabee’s status as a genuine Washington outsider, someone untainted by the corrupt dealings inside the beltway. Indeed, Santorum’s record shows him to be deeply connected to the ethically unsavory and legally dubious world of DC influence-peddling.

Since losing his Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2006, Santorum has used his connections to land a series of highly-paid jobs. Consol Energy, a natural gas company specializing in “hydrofracking” and the fifth-largest donor to his 2006 campaign, paid him $142,000 for consulting work. He also earned $395,000 sitting on the board of Universal Health Services (UHS), a for-profit hospital chain whose CEO made contributions to his Senate campaigns and which stood to benefit from a big hike in Medicare payments Santorum proposed in 2003. (Incidentally, the Department of Justice sued UHS for Medicare and Medicaid fraud during Santorum’s four-year tenure on its board.) Santorum also earned paychecks from a religious advocacy group, a lobbying firm, and a think tank. For pushing legislation benefitting UHS and several other companies, one ethics group named Santorum to its “most corrupt Senators” list.

Santorum has made his post-Senate career doing the sort of quasi-lobbying that helped sink Newt Gingrich’s campaign in Iowa. But in fact, while still in office, he was a central actor in an even more sordid venture: The K Street Project. Started in 1989 by GOP strategist Grover Norquist and brought to prominence by former House majority leader Tom DeLay in 1995, the K Street Project was a highly organized effort to funnel Republican Congressional staffers into jobs at lobbying firms, trade organizations, and corporations, while attempting to block Democrats from those same posts. From 2001 until 2006, Santorum was the Project’s point man for the Senate, while House Majority Whip Roy Blunt manned the House side.

In 2006, the K Street Project was effectively forced to shut down amid public outcry; the following year, an ethics reform law made such outfits illegal. But in its heyday, it helped create an unprecedented revolving door between the White House, Congress and K Street, blurring distinctions between Republican policy and corporate welfare. As Elizabeth Drew put it in a 2005 New York Review of Books piece, “Democratic lobbyists have been pushed out of their jobs as a result; business associations who hire Democrats for prominent positions have been subject to retribution. They are told that they won’t be able to see the people on Capitol Hill they want to see.” Nicholas Confessore, in a groundbreaking 2003 Washington Monthly expose of the Project, detailed the goal bluntly: “First, move the party to K Street. Then move the government there, too.”

At the center of all this was Santorum. According to Confessore, Santorum conducted weekly breakfasts with lobbyists, and occasionally Congressmen and White House staff, during which he attempted to match Republican Hill staffers with K Street job openings. As Confessore put it, “Every week, the lobbyists present pass around a list of the jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum's responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican—a Senator's chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated.” The group refused to meet with Democrats, and threatened sanctions against lobbies that did.

Revolving door tactics, until then de facto lobbying policy, were formalized and transformed into a “pay to play” system by the K Street Project. In 2003, after the top post at The Motion Picture Association of America went to a Democrat instead of a Republican, House Republicans reneged on an impending tax break, hitting the movie industry with a $1.5 billion bill. After the Democrat was chosen, Roll Call reported that “Santorum has begun discussing what the consequences are for the movie industry.” (Santorum, though he often denies his involvement in the K Street Project, more or less confirmed his involvement in the MPAA flap.) Later that year, the Washington Post revealed that the House Financial Services Committee pressured a consortium of mutual funds to oust a top lobbyist who was a Democrat in exchange for relaxing a pending investigation. After the smoke cleared, she was replaced by a Republican.

Whether the K Street Project was truly successful is up for debate. Confessore and Drew’s reports portray intimidated and marginalized Democratic lobbyists. According to a 2003 Washington Post story, a Republican National Committee official boasted that 33 of 36 top lobbying jobs had recently gone to Republicans. Former lobbyist Patrick Griffin, now an adjunct professorial lecturer at American University, told me that the project embodied the brazen crudeness of “DeLayism,” but also suggested that most lobbying firms and corporations were not “stupid” enough to purge Democratic staff and risk alienating much of the Hill.

What is clear is how much Santorum’s legacy is entangled with the two most corrupt political figures of the last decade: DeLay, and Jack Abramoff, who was said to have been involved in the Project. (Abramoff reportedly attended Santorum’s very first meeting, though Abramoff denied involvement and Santorum said in 2001 he couldn’t remember if he had.) Abramoff’s recent assertion that he “owned” politicians by dangling the promise of highly-paid lobbying gigs in front of powerful Hill staffers, though hyperbolic, is a fairly apt description of the K Street Project’s goals.

Yet, despite all this, Santorum’s communications director recently told the Washington Post that “Rick Santorum fought to destroy the good old boy network in Washington.” As an electoral strategy, of course, it makes sense for the former Senator to present himself as a Washington outsider and a paragon of personal ethics. But such claims of moral rectitude strain credulity. Santorum made a career polishing DC’s corrupt revolving door—only to walk through it himself at the first opportunity.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a Reporter-Researcher at The New Republic.

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