He’s one of the country’s leading unelected power brokers, but his clout is eroding as more and more Congresspeople mutiny against him. He’s Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist has long demanded that Republican Congressional candidates sign a statement called the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, in which they promise not to approve any new spending unless it’s balanced by a commensurate cut.
Norquist threatens to punish them with well-financed opposition if they don’t toe the line, and it’s not just idle bluster. In primaries in Virginia in 2005, his organization, Americans for Tax Reform, took credit for defeating (or, in one case, driving out of his race) two or more contenders who had failed to keep the pledge.
Norquist goes even farther than demanding that those who sign his pledge refrain from approving any new taxes. He calls the elimination of subsidies—for the oil companies, for example—“new taxes,” a verbal gambit former GOP senator Alan Simpson describes as “ludicrous and deceptive.” Simpson has called Norquist “the most powerful man in America,” and blasted his fellow Republicans for taking the pledge and feeling obliged to keep it.
“And what can he do to you?” Simpson demanded as he spoke on a discussion panel at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s third annual fiscal summit earlier this year. “He can’t murder you. He can’t burn your house down. The only thing he can do to you is defeat you for re-election or put some dud into your primary to take you out, and if that means more to you than your country and extremity, you shouldn’t even be in Congress.”
But now, especially with the country’s solvency problems bearing down, even Republicans want a little flexibility. Last spring, six freshman Republicans in the House told Politico that they had refused to sign the pledge; some who had signed said that, given the need to consider every possible way of trimming the deficit, they were asking themselves how binding it was.
Two seasoned Republican Congressmen, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have repudiated Norquist’s pledge. Johnny Isakson, a U.S. Senator from Georgia who signed the pledge but now wants to eliminate some deductions from the tax code, has said that as deficit reduction discussions heat up, he might disregard some features of Norquist’s definition of “raising” taxes. “You’ve got to have the intestinal fortitude to put everything on the table,” Isakson told Bloomberg News.
In the Nov. 6 election, 79 Congressional candidates who had signed the ATR pledge—including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and other incumbents—lost their races. Some had been directly challenged about the pledge on the campaign trail by the Democrats who defeated them.
Jeff Flake, a Republican who ran successfully to become the junior U.S. senator from Arizona, where John McCain is senior senator, under questioning from opponents denied ATR claims that he had promised to keep the no-tax pledge. Flake said he hadn’t signed the pledge and had no intention of doing so. “The only pledge I’d sign,” Flake said, “is a pledge to sign no more pledges.”
Though Norquist’s obsession with taxes would seem to suggest that he is a single-focused character, his identity and career have interesting twists. He engaged in dealings with former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff in which Americans for Tax Reform laundered money Abramoff improperly took from Indian tribes that were his clients. Norquist also gave Abramoff clients access to President George W. Bush and other high-level government officials after they made large donations to his group.
If Norquist’s hold over Republican Congressmen weakens, it will be the end of an era that has lasted for 26 years (the pledge dates from 1986). One source of gridlock on Capitol Hill will be removed if the sense that there shouldn’t be a gatekeeper for people wishing to run for Congress—that no one should leap in ahead of the voters to blackmail Congresspeople into a position that can’t change with new information—finally prevails.•