Norquist: Self-Appointed No-Tax Czar Loses Ground
Business + Economy

Norquist: Self-Appointed No-Tax Czar Loses Ground

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

It’s a sign of the times: No longer are people asking how Grover Norquist – founder of Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative anti-tax lobbying group – has attained such power by convincing several hundred members of Congress to sign his ironclad “taxpayer protection pledge” to vote against tax increases for the rest of their lives.   

Instead, as lawmakers negotiate to prevent a combined $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts from kicking in beginning in January 2013 – and as the ‘R’ word (revenue) is called inevitable – people are asking if Norquist has any power left at all.

President Obama isn’t giving an inch – he says he’ll follow through on his campaign pledge to raise taxes on the highest income earners. Even though the president, Democratic congressional leaders and some Republicans agree that raising tax revenues by reducing deductions and credits is necessary to prevent the country from falling off the fiscal cliff, Norquist says that Republicans in Congress would not break with decades of fighting tax increases no matter what’s at stake. 

“The Rs are holding,” he said Monday at a lunchtime gathering held by the Center for National Interest. “The fantasy is that the Republicans would cave on marginal tax rates – they’re non-negotiable.” He also said, “The entire Republican leadership has been elected on that commitment [to not raise taxes] in the House and the Senate.”

This is vintage Norquist. Earlier this year he told The Fiscal Times, “Almost nobody breaks the pledge. The pledge makes a promise credible.”

But there are chinks in the armor. Just listen to New York Republican congressman Peter King, who signed the Norquist pledge years ago. He told The New York Times this week, “A pledge is good at the time you sign it. In 1941, I would have voted to declare war on Japan. But each Congress is a new Congress. And I don’t think you can have a rule that you’re never going to raise taxes or that you’re never going to lower taxes. I don’t want to rule anything out.”

King is not alone: With the federal deficit now at $16 trillion and with the fiscal cliff looming, a lot of people don’t want to rule things out. A lot of people are dissing the pledge. Last week Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said at an event, “I’m frankly not concerned about the Norquist pledge.”

Senator John McCain of Arizona also said last week, “Fewer and fewer people are signing this, quote, pledge.”

And Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina noted that closing tax loopholes and slashing deductions will have to be considered, “though that may technically violate the pledge.” He added, “Sign me up.” 

About a dozen newly elected House GOP members refused to sign the pledge during their run for office, and another handful of returning Republicans have “disavowed their allegiance to the written commitment,” as The Hill put it. Ted Yoho of Florida said recently, “I don’t want to sign a pledge that’s going to tie my hands. I need free rein to do what I think is right for the people in my district and the country.”

To top it off, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, the influential conservative publication, said recently, “It won’t kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires.”

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin might have put it this way if she were on a different side of the aisle: So Grover, how’s that pledge workin’ out for ya?

None of the recent Republican “squishiness” is new to Norquist, 56, the Harvard-educated president of Americans for Tax Reform who has never been elected to any public office. As he told The New York Times, “This is not my first rodeo.” 

Exactly one year ago, as lawmakers grappled for a balanced deficit-reduction package that included revenues and an overhaul of the country’s tax code, headlines proclaimed Norquist’s grip on the GOP was slipping. In November of 2011, Alan Simpson, the outspoken former GOP senator from Wyoming and co-chair of the Bowles-Simpson commission, urged lawmakers to stand up to lobbying groups like Americans for Tax Reform.

“If Grover Norquist is now the most powerful man in America, he should run for president,” Simpson said last year. “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.”

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, who did not sign the pledge, also berated Norquist last year on the House floor. “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 reviewed as breaking a no-tax pledge?” Wolf said.

A day after that, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said the pledge should be revisited. Thune, a pledge signer, said, “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.”

One year later, Norquist clearly hears an echo. Alan Simpson said last week, “What can Grover do to you? He can’t murder you. He can’t burn your house.” And GOP Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma recently referred to the pledge as a “tortured vision of tax purity.” 

Norquist’s retort: “It’s been 22 years since a Republican voted for a tax increase in this town.”

As the country careens toward the fiscal cliff and as some Republicans demonstrate a new openness to raising tax revenues – will Norquist’s pledge hold?

Norquist is betting on it. But he also seems to have a Plan B in mind if the whole thing curls up in a corner and dies. When The Fiscal Times asked him a few months back if he foresaw turning his passion and commitment to other endeavors beyond Americans for Tax Reform, he replied without missing a beat, “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.”