As America faces the fiscal cliff with time running short, the specter of Grover Norquist looms over the negotiations, with the vast majority of Republicans who signed his no-tax pledge reluctant to consider raising taxes. While a few GOP dissidents have broken with him, most of the signatories to his pledge continue to hold the line. Who is Grover Norquist and who gave this person who has never held an elective office so much power to determine government policy?
Norquist, active in Republican politics since high school, went to Harvard as an undergraduate in the 70s and received an MBA from that illustrious university. Subsequently, he worked for the National Taxpayers Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before starting Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a 501(c) 4 corporation in 1985, which he claims was done at the urging of President Reagan. The objective of this organization was to promote smaller government by reducing government revenue as a proportion of GDP. To achieve his goal, Norquist devised the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in which signatories promised to resist any and all increases in government taxes or revenues.
Over the years, virtually all Republican politicians signed the pledge to reinforce their conservative bona fides with other party members, whether or not they considered it reasonable. It was necessary to protect their right flanks against possible primary fights from even more conservative challengers and to get the imprimatur of Norquist. Before the 2012 election, five of the six Republican presidential candidates, including Romney, had signed the pledge along with 238 of 242 Republican members of Congress and 41 of 47 GOP Senators.
Is it smart for elected officials to lock themselves into rigid positions regarding government revenues when future circumstances are unknown? What if the nation goes to war and has to rapidly ratchet up military spending? What if there is a natural catastrophe, such as an earthquake that causes huge numbers of casualties, severe property damage, and destruction of important infrastructure.
Pledging to follow specific guidelines when the future is uncertain makes no sense. Every elected official needs to be flexible to deal with unpredictable situations. Part of the runaway national debt the United States faces is because of the Bush tax cuts while the country was fighting two wars and the refusal of Republicans to raise revenues to pay for heightened military spending. Now, approaching the fiscal cliff and drowning in debt, recalcitrant Republicans remain unwilling to increase taxes on the rich, even though Obama was elected asking for these taxes and the majority of Americans want them.
Norquist’s message resounds with the far right, the Tea Party, and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party that would like to see the role of government shrink. Since his early days in Washington in the 80s, he has been a successful lobbyist and knows how to push the right political buttons to get things done.
However, people seem to have forgotten the intimate bonds that existed between Jack Abramoff and Norquist, and the help Norquist gave Abramoff in defrauding Indian tribes and bribing government officials. After ATR received $1.5 million from Abramoff’s Indian clients, Norquist voiced opposition to taxes on Indian gambling and arranged for Indian leaders to meet with President Bush. ATR also acted as a conduit for funds from Abramoff to Ralph Reed and other lobbyists who wanted the source to remain hidden. Though Abramoff pleaded guilty to three felony counts and went to jail, along with Congressman Bob Ney and a number of other officials, Norquist emerged unscathed, his unethical and possibly illegal activities disregarded by his GOP colleagues. In fact, he seemed to acquire additional power as more Republicans signed on to his pledge.
Further unethical behavior by Norquist was the K Street Project begun in 1995 through the early 2000s. He was a major player pressuring lobbying firms to hire only conservative Republicans and fire Democrats if the firms wanted access to Republican members of Congress. This had never been done before. Threats of Congressional investigations were also utilized to force the hiring of Republicans, with Americans for Tax Reform monitoring compliance. Lobbying firms that did not cooperate were posted on ATR’s website.
As a 501(c) 4 corporation, Americans for Tax Reform does not have to list its contributors or funding, or pay any taxes, and Norquist has refused to make a list of his supporters public. With all of his shady dealings, Norquist remains a power in the Republican Party, because his refusal to capitulate on taxes is appealing to the right-wing. He is one of the reasons compromise is a dirty word in Washington.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.