Anti-Tax Crusader Grover Norquist’s Grip is Slipping
Policy + Politics

Anti-Tax Crusader Grover Norquist’s Grip is Slipping

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With just nine days left before the congressional Super Committee has to produce a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package and with talks at an impasse, once again a major stumbling block is taxes. 

Many blame the godfather of Washington’s conservative anti-tax movement, Grover Norquist, and his anti-tax pledge. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. has said Republicans are being “led like puppets by Grover Norquist” and calls him part of the reason the Super Committee doesn’t have a deal. “Maybe they should impeach Grover Norquist,” Reid said on Tuesday.

Norquist, the Harvard-educated President of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), dismissed the sniping. “I’m not in the way of a tax increase,” he said on C-Span last weekend. “The commitment by congressmen and senators stands in the way of a tax increase.” Norquist told The Hill.

“…He has people in thrall.
That’s a terrible phrase.
Lincoln used it. It means
your mind has been captured.”

The anti-tax crusader started soliciting signers to the no-tax-increase pledge from state capitols to Capitol Hill in 1986 with the passage of the landmark Tax Reform Act. ATR currently has signatures from 238 House representatives, 41 Senators, 13 governors, and all of the GOP presidential candidates except former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. Norquist, who is known for saying conservatives should want government so small they “can drown it in a bathtub,” has even collected several Democratic signatures. For Republicans, signing the pledge has become an article of loyalty and a routine measure. The oath has evolved into a staple in every campaign season, with the ATR providing ground troops and money to help conservative candidates secure a seat in Congress.

But now there are signs that Norquist’s grip on the GOP party is waning as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and outside groups call for a balanced deficit-reduction package that includes revenues and an overhaul of the nation’s tax code. “It’s simply too hard to say if he has lost his grasp on the GOP conference,” said Bruce Bartlett, a columnist for The Fiscal Times and a former senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House. “Cracks are forming, but that’s the most that could be said at this time.”

Still, says Steve Ellis, vice president for Taxpayers for Common Sense, “It’s becoming harder and harder when the times become so tight fiscally to keep this iconoclastic stance.” 

Recently, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming urged lawmakers to stand up to the powerful outside lobbying groups like ATR. 

“If Grover Norquist is now the most powerful man in America, he should run for president,” Simpson said. “There’s no question about his power. And let me tell you, he has people in thrall. That’s a terrible phrase. Lincoln used it. It means your mind has been captured. You’re in bondage with your soul.”

Some former pledge signers say Norquist has scared lawmakers into signing the pledge and held it over politicians’ heads like a sword of Damocles. Over the past few months a handful of conservative lawmakers have publicly pushed back against the anti-tax oath and say they no longer feel bound by it, especially as Congress seek ways to tame the spiraling national debt.

Bartlett says Norquist may have pushed the boundaries with lawmakers. “Some members of congress don’t like getting lectured from a ‘pipsqueak’,” he says. “There is a terrible barrier to legitimate tax reform and getting control of the deficit. He is obsessed with a very narrow focus, and it’s bull crap.”

Earlier this year, Norquist issued a warning to any Republican who might be tempted to support tax increases as part of a comprehensive deficit-cutting package. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a member of the “Gang of Six” deficit group, publicly challenged Norquist over ethanol subsidies and whether killing them would violate the anti-tax pledge. 

In July, Norquist surprised many when he provided a major opening for revenue and said a lawmaker who voted to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire wouldn’t be violating his organization’s pledge. He quickly backtracked on those comments, made to the Washington Post editorial board, and said that it would indeed be a tax increase.

Last month Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who did not sign the pledge, took to the House floor and berated Norquist. “Have we really reached a point where one person’s demand for ideological purity is paralyzing Congress to the point that even a discussion of tax reform is viewed as breaking a no-tax pledge?” Wolf asked. 

One day later, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told MSNBC that the pledge should be revisited and members of Congress shouldn’t be hamstrung by taxpayer pledges.  “We shouldn’t be bound by something that could be interpreted different ways if what we’re trying to accomplish is broad-based tax reform,” Thune said.

Shortly after Congress agreed to raise the debt ceiling in August, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., disavowed Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, which he had previously signed when he ran for office in 2004, because he said it was “too constraining.”  A pledge “restrains your ability to think creatively,” he said at a town hall meeting, noting Norquist’s attempts to interpret and define what is considered a tax increase.

Last week, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio., threw down the gauntlet and called Norquist “some random guy,” signaling that if Norquist wanted to remain relevant and maintain his credibility he should work with Republican members. 

“Grover told me that
he saw himself as the
Lenin of the conservative
revolution and that Ralph
Reed was his Trotsky and
Jack Abramoff was his Stalin.”

Bartlett says Norquist isn’t going to lose any sleep over members speaking out. But Republican strategist Ron Bonjean says Coburn and Boehner have severely damaged Norquist’s influence within the GOP conference. They have helped pave the way for more members to challenge the anti-tax pledge, Bonjean says.

To be sure, not all Republicans are running away from the pledge. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., a signer of the pledge, sided with Norquist and said those members who signed it should honor their commitment.  “It’s not about Grover Norquist,” Cantor told reporters at a press conference on Monday. “It’s about commitments that people made to the electorate that they represent, to the people that sent them here,” Cantor said. “That’s what this is about. Your word should be good to your constituents….”

While it’s unclear if the Super Committee will succeed or fail before its Thanksgiving deadline, some budget experts predict there will be some type of revenue in the final deal. “Members right now are trying to find creative ways around Norquist’s pledge,” Bonjean says.
Norquist’s well-cultivated influence in conservative circles over the past two decades is remarkable and has earned him the title of the 101st Senator. But his path to power was no accident.

“Around 1980, Grover told me that he saw himself as the Lenin of the conservative revolution and that Ralph Reed was his Trotsky and Jack Abramoff was his Stalin,” Bartlett recalls.