In person, he is brash and bombastic, full of conviction and quick to agitate. A compact man with a close-cut beard and a razor-sharp mind, Grover Norquist, 55, president of Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative anti-tax lobbying group he founded in the mid 1980s, is today considered one of the most powerful and controversial people in Washington.
While many eagerly take his side, saying he’s one of the few brave souls in America who has the gumption to stand up and say, “No,” to increased government spending and waste, others believe just as fervently that he’s responsible for last year’s debt-ceiling debacle. They say he’s cornered Republican lawmakers over the years into agreeing with an ironclad “no new taxes” position, making it nearly impossible for Congress and the White House to reach agreement on crucial budget and deficit matters.
Norquist, naturally, is dismissive of negative views. His position is that President Obama has delivered the largest spending increases and largest deficits in American history – and that big government punishes those who work hard and innovate and ultimately create jobs and wealth, “the two key factors for economic recovery.”
His anti-tax pledge, he insists, is critical to “achieving limited government and greater economic freedom.” “If somebody says to you, ‘I won’t raise your taxes,’ you know nothing,” Norquist told The Fiscal Times on Monday during a spirited 45-minute breakfast meeting in midtown Manhattan. “The pledge separates people who won’t raise your taxes from those who might.”
He was referring to the written agreement known as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge that he dreamed up in 1986. To date, 238 House members, 41 Senators, and about 1300 state legislators have signed the pledge to never, ever raise taxes. The fact that a whopping 95 percent of all Republican congressmen have signed it – plus all four of the existing GOP presidential candidates – is a point of pride for him.
“Almost nobody breaks the pledge,” said Norquist. “The pledge makes a promise credible.”
But if any new cracks have appeared in his carefully constructed armor, Norquist remains undaunted. Last week, Republican Congressman Tim Johnson of Illinois said he never intended the agreement he signed back in February 2002 to be a “locked-in-granite pledge.” Johnson called it “disingenuous.” Norquist quickly produced the written document that Johnson at first denied signing, saying with a flourish, “This doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
In a crucial election year, no one should consider Grover Norquist down for the count -- not by a long shot. If anything, his reputation for advocating for a smaller, more responsible government – fueled in equal parts by passion, ideology and Tea Party backing – has been even more firmly cemented.
“It’s interesting that a few Republicans are voicing their concerns in public, but so far they are the lone voice in the wind,” noted Bruce Bartlett, a former senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House, where Norquist once worked, and a columnist for The Fiscal Times. “I think it is far, far too soon to count Grover and the pledge out.”