A Senator's daily pressures

Posted: Apr 28, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, Rick Santorum -- in his 11th Senate year after four years as a congressman -- sat for a moment nearly alone in his Capitol Hill office and, for the first time in the day, showed signs of nervousness. "Where am I supposed to be?" he asked his scheduler. "I know I'm not supposed to be doing nothing."

 That was certainly true. Santorum's schedule for the day listed 33 different items, including meetings with activists and lobbyists, planning sessions with other senators, "greets" (brief exchanges with constituents), "drop-bys" (poking his head into conference rooms), drop-ins at Senate hearings and floor debates, and group prayer time.

 Sometimes the meetings were a three-ring circus, with visitors waiting in two conference rooms within Santorum's suite and a third group sitting in his office. For example, at 9:45 a.m. two other roomfuls waited as a Pennsylvania conservation district delegation told him, "Thank you for the funding you brought to our county. ... The president's budget cuts the funding. We're asking that it stays in the budget. ... We hope the budget would be cut elsewhere instead of us."

 The senator smilingly responded, "Everyone says that," as he thumped the table with his hands, ba-da-dum, indicating his desire to get away.

 Over the next two hours, he had other meetings about policy matters, but the pressures of constituent-servicing (especially with a tough re-election campaign coming up next year) are unceasing. At 11:53, he raced back to his own office, a female assistant's medium-heeled shoes rat-a-tatting just behind him, and 10 seconds later asked his scheduler, "OK, where am I off to now?"

 The next minute, Santorum was listening to constituents hoping to sell food to the Department of Defense and wanting their senator's help in landing a contract. He asked: "What do you need? A letter of support?" The response was immediate: "A strong letter of support." He asked, "How much will this save the government?" and, after some numbers were thrown around, he responded, "OK, we'll see what we can do."

 Ba-da-dum, time to move to another conference room, but here's another topic: How about allowing more sales of Pennsylvania agricultural products to Cuba? He responded: "I'm not a big fan of that. ... You're propping up a government that's hostile and spreading its hostility." Ba-da-dum, but what about attaining "fair trade" through establishing more tariffs to protect Pennsylvania farmers? Santorum replied: "You make it fair by having free trade in the region. That's free and fair."

 Next up were seven graduate students from Pennsylvania asking why Pennsylvania lags in business growth. The senator responded, "We have very high rates of taxation ... a legal and regulatory climate that's very unfriendly ... education needs to be improved." To a question about the purpose of the federal government, Santorum replied: "Read the Preamble to the Constitution. Provide for the common defense. That's first and foremost. Promote the general welfare: Government's job isn't to do it, but to create an environment in which others can work for the common good."

 Ba-da-dum, ready to go, but 20 more graduate students suddenly crowded into the room and asked Santorum about his strong opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. He tried to take them back to basics: "The Founders knew that when liberty is reduced to the issue of choice, it's reduced to license, and ultimately there's chaos." He moved his hands back and forth like trees blowing in a gale. "If you just do what you want to do, you're ultimately going to hurt other people."

 Ba-da-dum, and he was outside the conference room asking his scheduler, "Where am I supposed to go?" He met with a Pennsylvania contingent that resembled the Lollypop Guild of Oz: "We want to thank you for your support. ... We, as partners, want to partner with government so we can provide appropriate services."

 What to make of all this? It's great that legislators hear the views of their constituents, but almost everyone has a hand in the federal pork barrel. That makes it tough for an honest and principled man like Santorum. Ba-da-dum.