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Rick Santorum's Hostile Takeover

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OUT IN Montana, where I live, folks are learning a lot about political corruption. Our senator is a guy named Conrad Burns. After his campaign pocketed more than $150,000 from indicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients, Burns has become the target of a federal investigation into the matter.

But as I tell everyone who seems shocked at Burns' behavior, he's just one of a number of senators who has based his career on manipulating the system of legalized bribery that has overtaken our democracy. Having grown up in the Philadelphia area being represented by Rick Santorum, I should know.

As I head back to Philadelphia for the launch of my new book on the money culture of politics, I'm thinking of just how used to political corruption Pennsylvanians are, thanks to Santorum.

As Washington Monthly reported in 2003, "Santorum became the Senate's point man on K Street"- the corridor in Washington where corporate lobbyists have their offices. His efforts were widely known to be part of the "K Street Project," now at the center of a federal investigation.

Santorum "held weekly meetings with top Republican lobbyists at which he discusses, among other matters, job openings at Washington lobbying firms," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. One of those attending the first ultra-exclusive meeting was none other than Jack Abramoff.

The goal of the gatherings was to fill lobbying jobs with loyal Republicans, who then funneled corporate cash to the GOP come election time. For his trouble, Santorum "has received more money from lobbyists than any other congressional candidate so far in the 2006 election cycle," according to the Post-Gazette.

Santorum denies it. "I had absolutely nothing to do - never met, never talked, never coordinated, never did anything - with... the quote K Street Project," he said. As for his connections to Abramoff, the senator's spokesman recently told local papers that Santorum "does not know him."

But Pennsylvania's junior senator isn't just doing this all in a vacuum - he is a legislator who aggressively pushes Big Money's agenda on the Senate floor.

For instance, he was dispatched by GOP leaders in Washington to kill a minimum-wage increase in 2005. After voting repeatedly throughout his career against raising the minimum from its now 50-year low, Santorum offered an amendment to a minimum-wage bill that seemed likely to pass. The legislation purported to raise the minimum, and gave GOP senators a way to seem like they supported the increase.

But experts quickly noted that behind Santorum's charade purporting to support a wage hike, his bill's fine print would have eliminated all existing minimum-wage protections for almost 7 million workers, opening the door to massive pay cuts, and the effective legalization of sweatshops.

The bill also would have nullified various state minimum-wage laws, eliminated overtime pay protections for millions of workers and exempted businesses from fines for violating workplace safety, health and pension laws.

Though Santorum's proposal didn't pass, it stripped enough votes from the real bill to send it to defeat. As a thank you, Santorum got a nice wet kiss from Corporate America: Wal-Mart, one of the country's largest low-wage employers, lent him its corporate jet a few weeks later for a victory lap at a slew of fat-cat fund-raisers in Florida, where his campaign pocketed $250,000.

SANTORUM HAS also shown who he takes orders from with his aggressive advocacy of tax cuts that almost exclusively benefit the wealthy elites who finance his campaigns.

In 2003, for instance, he led the fight to pass a multibillion-dollar tax cut for investors. According to the New York Times, "Americans with annual incomes of $1 million or more, about one-tenth of 1 percent all taxpayers, reaped 43 percent" of the cuts. Those making more than $10 million got $500,000 each in cuts, while those making $50,000 or less got about $10.

Santorum championed this tax cut just months before he opposed increasing child-care funding for working mothers by saying, "Making people struggle a little bit is not necessarily the worst thing."

We live in an era where our government has been the victim of a hostile takeover by Big Money interests - an era where this kind of dishonesty, hypocrisy and corruption passes for legitimate political discourse, whether in Montana with Sen. Burns or in Pennsylvania with Sen. Santorum.

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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