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Legislator's Agenda

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum gives tips on optimizing a busy schedule with technology.
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Efficiency Expert

Senator Rick Santorum optimizes his tightly packed schedule with technology and a prayer

It's 8 a.m., and congress is in session. Do you know where your senators are?

If you're from Pennsylvania, one of yours, Rick Santorum, is in church. After a half-hour service at Saint Joseph's Church in Washington, D.C., the 40-year-old Santorum heads for the Congressional Gym, where he plays tennis or climbs the Stairmaster. "If you get the physical and spiritual taken care of first," he says, "later you can deal with the intellectual and the emotional."

Today Santorum, a member of 1994's Republican charge on Congress, is contending with a "vote-a-rama." Every 10 minutes he must return to the Senate floor to cast his vote for or against one of a series of 13 appropriations bills. The stacked votes had not been part of his tightly packed calendar today, but Santorum makes the best of it, using the intervals to review policy with his aides, and even to have his picture taken with children from two Pennsylvania schools. He doesn't mind spending time on the Senate floor. But because he prefers to do three or so activities at once, he wishes he could bring his Compaq laptop, which he takes everywhere else, with him.

Well-known for his enthusiastic embrace of technology, Santorum was the Rules Committee's lone advocate of Wyoming senator Michael B. Enzi's 1997 bill to allow computers onto the Senate floor. Knowing that most of the eloquent speeches on the floor are delivered only to C-SPAN cameras, Santorum figured that, like him, his workaholic colleagues might be more willing to spend time there if they could bring their computers along. But the committee was loath to tamper with the Senate's 19th-century ambience and killed the bill before it even came up for a vote.

Chatting in the elaborately appointed Mansfield Room, in the ghostly presence of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Santorum is completely at home. He and fellow senators banter like high school ballplayers. "R.S.!" Missouri senator John Ashcroft hollers. "J.A.!" Santorum responds. But don't be deceived. Santorum's no-nonsense core imposes order on his high-stress job. "If you want to communicate with me," he tells long-winded staff members, "send E-mail."

Santorum promotes sanity through efficiency with these dos and don'ts:

1. DO EVERYTHING AT ONCE. Santorum won't waste time on single-purpose activities. For example, in the last three years he hasn't played a casual game of golf. "If I have five hours of free time," he says, "I want to spend it with my kids." But because he likes to play, he's instructed his staff to "schedule golf fund-raisers," or he incorporates hitting golf balls into his morning workout.

Mark Rodgers, his chief of staff, says that if "there are three meetings going on at once" within his staff, Santorum goes to all of them. He can easily do this because his private office sits in the center of an office suite--unlike most senators', which are hidden at the far end of the hall.

With 24 miles separating his office from his home in suburban Virginia, Santorum spends a good deal of time in his 1991 Jeep Cherokee­cum-office. He uses part of his 45-minute ride home to make fund-raising calls on one of the two cell phones he reserves expressly for that purpose. Wiser than some politicians, Santorum keeps two others lines for Senate business. Some evenings he manages to squeeze in a conference call and--though the poor sound quality makes his press officer cringe--a radio interview.

Lunchtime usually means a committee meeting, so Santorum schedules breakfast meetings instead, near his church. Leaving home at 5:30 a.m., he uses the morning drive time to listen to inspirational audiotapes. He mentions that one tape, discussing marriage, refers to President Clinton, but the socially conservative Santorum reserves judgment, saying only that the "charming" president could easily "sell refrigerators to Eskimos."

2. DON'T HIDE INFORMATION. Nearly 4,000 pieces of mail arrive at Santorum's Senate office each week. It irks the coupon-clipping senator to spend his annual $75,000 postage allotment responding to it, but he frets even more about the staff hours it takes to answer the wide range of questions the office receives--hours that balloon into days because Santorum insists that his staffers craft original and personal responses ("not 'Thank-you for your opinion, and we'll consider it, yadda, yadda, yadda," he says).

To save time and money (and make life easier for all involved), Santorum and his staff disseminate information every way possible, hoping that Pennsylvanians will find answers to their questions before they think of writing. To that end Santorum's Web site is notable among congressional sites for its extensive contents and timeliness. Updated every Monday, its Weekly Columns offer status reports on pending legislation and outline Santorum's position on issues ranging from abortion to social security reform. His press releases, transcriptions of interviews, and a schedule of his press conferences and public appearances are listed in other parts of the site; that information is generally updated two or three times a week. Recently, his staff purchased a digital camera, and soon the Web site will feature photos that reporters can download.

An E-mail version of the Weekly Columns, the "Rick Report," goes to "anyone who gives me an address," says Santorum, "and it doesn't cost us anything." Because his E-mail and Web addresses appear on every communication that leaves his office, Santorum is confident that increasing numbers of constituents will be going on-line for answers to their questions.

3. DON'T DUPLICATE WORK SOMEONE ELSE HAS ALREADY DONE. "When I was in college, I never took notes," says Santorum, adding that to this day he writes nothing down. "I always used to study other people's notes."

Since college, Santorum has mastered the art of locating and making good use of existing resources. "Santorum is good at understanding how to take an existing structure and use it for his own purpose," says Michael Mihalke, a partner in Brabender Cox, the senator's media and public-affairs consulting firm. For example, rather than hiring a large staff for his 1994 campaign, Santorum relied on some 20 grassroots and activist organizations for manpower and public-relations expertise. And he mobilized a group of local real estate agents instead of using his own resources when it was time to tackle the capital-gains-tax issue.

4. DON'T SETTLE FOR A SYSTEM THAT DOESN'T WORK FOR YOU. Only one of Santorum's four children, 6-year-old Elizabeth, is ready for school. But her attending school would have created an untenable problem for Santorum, whose senatorial schedule divides his time between his home in the D.C. area and his home state. "If my daughter went to school, I'd never see her," he says. Santorum wants to be with his children as much as possible--on the odd day off and whenever he travels back to Pennsylvania for extended visits. But he knew that no elementary school would ever put up with his pulling his children in and out of the classroom. So he and his wife, Karen, are teaching Elizabeth at home. Santorum's senatorial duties make it difficult for him to study with Elizabeth regularly, but he does keep current with home-schooling issues, communicating with other parents on Internet newsgroups and Web sites.

By the time the day's vote-a-rama finally ends, it's already 2:30 p.m. Santorum heads back to his sports-memorabilia-filled office. There, as he churns through his E-mail, he fields phone calls. Although he looks tired and rumpled, his voice betrays no weariness. He easily segues from a newspaper interview about Medicare to a radio interview about the Renewal Alliance, a Republican initiative to rethink government's relationship with the poor. He takes a short break to talk about a painting--of a dream team of Pittsburgh Pirates, spanning several decades--that hangs on his office wall, before he races to back-to-back meetings with a former governor of Puerto Rico, a reporter from a Christian magazine, and agents of the CIA.

Today's unanticipated floor action requires Santorum to modify his original agenda. He'll accomplish what needs to get done, but he won't reach his Jeep for another seven hours. And so far, even Santorum hasn't figured out a way to deal with the inflexibility of children's bedtimes.

Sarah Schafer is an editorial aide at the Washington Post.

Last updated: Jun 15, 1998




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