WASHINGTON — In his eight years on the Senate Banking Committee, Rick Santorum was an infrequent presence at committee hearings, even though his office was located on the same floor of the Dirksen office building as the committee's hearing room.
But there was one issue where the Pennsylvania Republican sought to play a leading role. Santorum, despite his reputation as a conservative stalwart, had a keen interest in providing disadvantaged families greater access to affordable housing.
In 2005, when Banking Committee Republicans were trying to tighten the regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Santorum pushed to include language in the legislation that would strengthen their affordable-housing goals.
"We're very concerned about making sure that we do things in working with this legislation to improve the access to affordable housing," Santorum said during a July 28, 2005 hearing on the Senate bill.
He added that he wanted to orient Fannie and Freddie "toward taking a more active role in creating housing opportunities for low and moderate income families."
At the time, those words were largely uncontroversial, and Republicans on the Banking Committee agreed to adopt Santorum's amendment, voting down a Democratic alternative that would have imposed stricter affordable-housing requirements on Fannie and Freddie.
But six and a half years later, Santorum's record has a different tint. Rival GOP presidential candidates have embraced a theory that blames government policies aimed at expanding access to homeownerhip for the 2008 financial crisis.
Fannie and Freddie are at the center of this narrative, as are congressional Democrats. Conservatives who espouse the theory argue that near the height of the housing bubble in 2005, the two government-sponsored mortgage giants should have been far less oriented toward providing affordable housing - not more so, as Santorum was advocating.
During a November presidential debate, Mitt Romney argued: "The reason we have the housing crises we have is that the federal government played too heavy a role in our markets. The federal government came in with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Barney Frank and Chris Dodd told banks they had to give loans to people who couldn't afford to pay them back."
Santorum, whose presidential campaign got a boost last week from a close second-place finish in Iowa, has not disputed the theory that federal policies aimed at expanding home ownership to unqualified buyers were a major cause of the financial crisis.
In fact, he has suggested that he agrees with it — placing blame on Democrats without acknowledging his own history of seeking to use Fannie and Freddie to expand access to affordable housing.
In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed article from May 2010, Santorum seemingly attributed the financial crisis to Fannie, Freddie, and the affordable-housing goals of Democrats.
"In the 1990s, the Clinton administration pushed the mortgage giants to take on more subprime debt — and therefore risk — to accomplish Democrats' affordable-housing goals," Santorum wrote. "As Fannie and Freddie grew in size and risk profile, I and some of my Republican colleagues attempted to restrict their growth and reform them. Democrats opposed us, and they prevailed until it was too late."
Santorum's presidential campaign did not respond to two requests for comment for this article.
To understand why, during Santorum's days as a senator, he embraced the idea of expanding affordable housing, it helps to remember that at the time he portrayed himself as a "compassionate conservative."
That label — which has fallen out of favor among Republican politicians — was popularized by George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Santorum, a Roman Catholic who made a name for himself nationally with his conservative views on social issues, wrote an academic article in 2000 titled "A Compassionate Conservative Agenda: Addressing Poverty for the Next Millennium."
In the article, which was published in the University of Notre Dame Law School's Journal of Legislation, Santorum summarized his point of view by writing, "We must embrace legislative initiatives that lift greater numbers of the disenfranchised out of poverty while strengthening families and communities by increasing their social support structure and opportunities. This is compassionate conservatism."
Affordable housing was part of the policy agenda that Santorum laid out in that 2000 article. "Access to safe and affordable housing is … a significant concern for low-income Americans seeking to pull themselves out of poverty," he wrote.
Between 2002 and 2005, Santorum was a key Republican co-sponsor of bipartisan affordable-housing legislation in the Senate.
The Community Development Homeownership Tax Credit Act would have encouraged the construction and rehabilitation of 500,000 homes for families with low and moderate incomes. Fannie and Freddie supported the legislation, and so did a variety of affordable-housing advocates, but it was never enacted.
Mark Calabria, a former Republican staffer on the Senate Banking Committee, said that Santorum thought of affordable housing as part of his compassionate conservative agenda.
"He had a good working relationship with what you would traditionally think of as the more left-wing housing groups in Pennsylvania," added Calabria, who is now director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute.