Santorum: Insider v. Reformer(?)

This is a dichotomy Sheryl Gay Stolberg presents in her recent article at the New York Times. Santorum’s career, according to the article, spanned from freshman reformer to leadership protégé and insider. Here’s my qualm with the article: generally speaking, why are reformers considered outsiders? We see this a lot in the media. We're presented with the notion that only outsiders are legitimate reformers. To an extent, they rendered John “Maverick” McCain as an outsider during and following the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act despite nearly 20 years in Washington. In reality, McCain was as inside as it gets. He clearly had strong ties to other members of Congress. He also had the relationships and institutional positioning necessary to get a bill as controversial as BCRA to the floor. And he was willing to exploit these internal channels and relationships to author and pass a significant campaign finance reform bill. But because he worked across party lines and not strictly within his party, he was a “maverick,” to an extent an “outsider,” and otherwise a Senator that went against the grain. Keep in mind he was this “maverick” force in Congress while maintaining a fairly conservative voting record that rose to 90% as judged by the John Birch Society in the fall of 2004.

The point is this: the best reformers are insiders. Outsiders who label themselves reformers often lack the knowledge and experience to significantly affect major problems in Washington. Freshman are effective at lending support but not leading the charge. The members that lead reform movements are most often senior members with the knowledge to pinpoint problems and offer viable policy or procedural solutions. Insiders that sought reform within the institution are the most successful. The most significant reformers in history, members like Mike Monroney (Okla.), Paul Douglas (Ill.), Richard Bolling (Mo.), Robert La Follette Jr. (Wis.), and William Hepburn (Ia.), were all salty veterans when they led the charge. Without the experience they drew upon, both from an institutional and a political standpoint to navigate all the egos and structures in Congress, it is likely that some of Congress's major rules and ethics reforms never occur.

Take Santorum’s case for example. As a freshman, he and the rest of the “Gang of Seven” brought “Rubbergate” (yet another '-gate' scandal) to the public’s attention. A few changes were made as a result. In reality, however, this wasn’t much of a scandal at all. Members of Congress would over-withdraw their congressional bank accounts that would later be reimbursed with their own paychecks. No tax dollars were used. Norman Ornstein, well-known congressional scholar from American Enterprise Institute, called it “a faux scandal.” It was more much-ado-about-nothing than changing the culture in Congress. In the end, they made a huge deal out of something that wasn’t illegal. They pursued this path for political points; and in the process, they enraged the senior Republicans who enjoyed the benefits of the Bank. In short, they managed to accomplish an insignificant reform while undermining their political capital and relationships and their opportunity for significant reforms in the future.

If Santorum wanted to be a reformer in a real sense, he shouldn’t have alienated senior members who hold the power necessary to enact significant change. In fact, he had a greater chance of being a legitimate reformer later in his career as he began to make his way up the leadership rungs. While he chose not to pursue significant reforms during this period is unfortunate, but his status as an insider didn’t prohibit reform. It should have enhanced it.