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.”
Grudging respect from some quarters may have stemmed, in part, from Norquist’s change of tune in December of last year, when he let Republican legislators know that opposing the extension of the payroll tax cut would not amount to supporting a tax hike. “Mr. Norquist’s rigid hatred of all tax increases of all kinds is nutty, but at least he knows what a tax looks like,” editorial board member Lawrence Downes, wrote in The New York Times a few days ago.
Now, in a new book, Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Now to Regain Our Future, Norquist has produced a 12-step plan “to rescue America from the Obama administration’s policies and return her to prosperity.” Among other things, he believes in adding the Warren Buffett line of “tax me more” to all federal tax returns, as eight states have already done. He advocates for keeping the focus on spending, not the deficit (“the government spends too much. It should spend less”), for reducing the regulatory burden of government, which Norquist says costs Americans “more than $1.8 trillion a year,” and for installing a balanced budget amendment to limit federal spending “to 18 percent of GDP.” This amendment, he says, would “protect against all the problems that previous weak or stripped-down balanced budget amendments have provoked.”
n other notable comments to The Fiscal Times on Monday, Norquist said he believes that:
- His anti-tax pledge “and its visibility” is what led to spending cuts in the last budget deal. “You don’t get reform until you take taxes off the table.”
- “People who think they’re tackling spending, like Simpson and Bowles, are just strategically wrong. If you agree to tax increases, we know from history that [the Democrats] don’t want to cut spending. They just want to raise taxes.”
- “The pledge allows us to elect a president, House and Senate that are all committed to not raising taxes.”
- The modern Republican Party’s answer to Obama’s overspending on his health-care law and on entitlement programs “already exists in the Ryan plan. All the presidential candidates have tipped their hat in that direction.” Whichever Republican wins in November “is going to sign something very much like the Ryan plan. If you take the Ryan plan out to 2040 or 2050, it gets us to about 15 percent of GDP.”
- “We should move all pensions, state and local, to defined contributions. We should take all welfare programs and block-grant them.”
- The federal government should “not own land, with the possible exception of the national parks and military bases.”
- “We did not grow to be a rich country because we had a big government. We had a big government because as we grew, we allowed the government to siphon off a lot.”
- Richard Lugar of Indiana, the conservative titan of the Senate, may soon join the pledge bandwagon. He’s “in a tough race. He might sign the pledge. He’s come over to talk to us a bunch [of times],” says Norquist.
That Norquist takes pointed jabs at Obama and the stimulus plan should be a surprise to no one. Norquist writes:
“With the different stimulus and jobs programs, it is hard to remember all the promises and to keep track of where the money has gone. There was the massive $825 billion stimulus that was supposed to create or save 4.1 million jobs. The cost was originally supposed to be $787 billion, but the programs cost more than planned. Then there was the string of smaller ones: the $38 billion Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment (HIRE) Act of 2010, which was supposed to create 300,000 jobs and the $26 billion Public Sector Jobs Bill of 2010 that promised to create or save another 300,000 jobs.”
Norquist sums up this way: “It should be pretty obvious. The stimulus made things worse. Spending almost a trillion dollars on various stimulus projects means moving a lot of resources from the private sector, eliminating the jobs many people currently have.”
Asked whether he foresaw turning his passion and commitment into any other endeavors beyond Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist looked up from his toasted bagel with cream cheese, and said, “I want to write murder mysteries, but not for awhile. I’ve done stand-up comedy, and I’m starting to do magic. I want to get good at it. It’s gonna take awhile.”