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Rick Santorum Tried To Turn Lobbyists Into Cogs Of GOP Machine With K Street Project

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WASHINGTON -- Behind the sweater vests, the faith and family, and the self-definition as a congressional reformer lies another Rick Santorum. This Rick Santorum favors big business, curries favor from lobbyists, and helped to bind the Washington influence industry to the Republican Party while serving in Congress.

Beginning in 2001, after Republicans seized control of Congress and the White House, then-Sen. Santorum (R-Pa.) began hosting Tuesday morning meetings with a select group of lobbyists. These meetings were part of a larger plan -- originally launched in the 1990s by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), conservative activist Grover Norquist and others when the GOP retook the House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic control -- to pressure lobbying firms and trade associations to dump their Democratic lobbyists and replace them with Republicans. Named after the Washington business corridor famous for housing lobbying firms, the K Street Project was aimed at installing a permanent Republican majority in Washington.

Journalist Nicholas Confessore explained Santorum's role in the K Street Project in a 2003 Washington Monthly article: "Santorum's responsibility is to make sure each [top lobbying job] 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. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors."

This wasn't just backroom chatter. There were real direct effects on policy. When Jack Valenti, the longtime chief of the Motion Picture Association of America, retired, Republicans led by Santorum and DeLay sought to pressure the trade group to hire a Republican. The MPAA ultimately replaced Valenti with former Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, deeply offending leaders of the K Street Project.

Santorum brought up the Glickman hire at a closed-door Republican caucus meeting and was quoted in a 2004 Roll Call article saying, "Yeah, we had a meeting and, yeah, we talked about making sure that we have fair representation on K Street. ... I admit that I pay attention to who is hiring, and I think it's important for leadership to pay attention."

Later in 2004, the Republicans in Congress voted down $1.5 billion in subsidies for the movie industry. Grover Norquist told Roll Call at the time that the movie industry's hire of Glickman was one of the reasons Republicans scuttled the subsidies. "Hollywood has recently expressed contempt for the Republican leadership in the House, Senate and White House," Norquist said.

The MPAA did ultimately hire a Republican for another top position, and many other big influence-industry jobs started to fall into the hands of partisan Republicans. A 2003 Washington Post article reported, "A Republican National Committee official recently told a group of GOP lobbyists that 33 of 36 top-level Washington positions he is monitoring went to Republicans."

These new jobs provided partisans with a direct line to client funds -- that is, contributions from corporate executives and political action committees -- to funnel to the Republican candidates of their choosing. In some cases, these trade associations ran issue advocacy campaigns to support GOP policies or to attack vulnerable Democratic lawmakers.

Running for reelection in 2006, Santorum leaned heavily on this new fundraising base. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Santorum received $496,683 from Washington lobbyists, the most of any candidate during that election cycle. Over his career, Santorum received $731,937 from lobbyists in Washington.

If the K Street Project's goal was to turn Washington's lobbying world into a petri dish of movement conservatism, it backfired. The project's real outcome was to strengthen the connection between the Republican Party in Washington and the business community at large. The business-backed influence industry gained new power over the GOP lawmakers -- and it paid off. Pharmaceutical companies won big in the prescription drug expansion of Medicare, energy company lobbyists wrote most of the 2005 energy bill, and legislation was filled with earmarks requested by the influence peddlers.

The tight ties binding business, lobbyists and the Republican Party became one of the key gripes of the Tea Party movement as it rose to action in 2009 and 2010. Former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has decried "crony capitalism" and called lobbyists "symptomatic of the greater problem that we see right now in Washington." Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) referred to lobbyists as a "distinctly criminal class" in his 2010 run for the Senate.

Matthew Continetti, conservative writer and former editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote a book about the corrupting influence of lobbyists in the Republican Party, "The K Street Gang," back in 2006. In a National Review interview, he explained, "Many lobbyists place the private over the public interest and the economic interests of a client over the national interests of the American people. This contributes to the degradation of public-spiritedness and national identity, and should trouble anyone concerned about American politics and American civic life."

Indeed, by 2006, the K Street Project was a national scandal. Two of its best-known participants, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and DeLay, had been indicted for other crimes -- Abramoff for corruption and DeLay for money laundering. Santorum distanced himself from the project, stating in February 2006, "We don't have a K Street Project. ... I have never called anybody or talked to anyone to try to get anybody a position on K Street with one exception, and that is if someone from my office is applying for a job and an employer calls me."

But one month later, after the temporary, scandal-induced hiatus, Santorum restarted his lobbyist gatherings. He lost his reelection bid later that year by a whopping 18 percentage points, partially due to his role leading the K Street Project.

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