“Tell me something cheerful” is how Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, has started most of the conversations I’ve had with him over the past 20 years. Not last week.
Norquist has spent a quarter century getting American politicians, especially Republicans, to sign a pledge opposing all tax increases. In recent weeks, however, his fight has been getting harder. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been urging Republicans not to take the pledge, arguing that it would rule out even a budget deal with $10 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases. The day I visited Norquist’s office, Bush had praised a tax-increasing budget deal – signed by his father, President George Bush – at a Bloomberg View forum.
The next day, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has taken the pledge, announced that he now disagrees with it. CNN, Politico and Bloomberg Businessweek have all run stories claiming that Norquist’s once-legendary influence among Republicans is starting to fade.
Norquist has for years been very successful in his mission. Since the 1990 budget deal signed by Bush, no congressional Republican has voted for a broad-based tax increase. There are 238 pledge-takers in the House and 41 in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Norquist leads Republicans “like puppets.” President Obama has blasted his sway, too.
In our hourlong interview, Norquist restated his case for the pledge. The first thing he wants people to understand is that it isn’t a pledge to him. It’s a pledge politicians make to voters. They make it, and keep it, because they think it will help them win votes. He parries any suggestions that he is powerful: “No. The tax issue is the most powerful issue in American politics.”
He continued, “What the pledge does is it enables an unknown politician to credibly commit” to opposing tax increases. Politicians who merely say they wish to avoid such increases but refuse to sign the pledge generally want to raise taxes, he thinks.
He pointed to the examples of Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, governors in Virginia during the past decade, and Republican Brian Sandoval, governor of Nevada now. None signed the pledge, and all pushed for tax increases as soon as they got into office.
For politicians who genuinely want to avoid higher taxes, he argued, the pledge makes life easier – especially at the state level, where constitutional requirements usually make it harder to run deficits. The pledge enables these politicians to tell interests that seek higher spending, in Norquist’s words, “I’d like to help you, but my hands are tied.”
Eventually, the spenders get the message and stop asking. If Gov. Scott Walker hadn’t taken the pledge, Norquist said, there would have been no labor-law reforms in Wisconsin. Taxes would just have been raised to help local governments keep paying excessive benefits to their workers. “You don’t get a conversation” about reform, he said, “once you put tax increases on the table.”
He believes that the pledge promotes a broader overhaul of the tax code, too. Under the pledge, tax breaks can be eliminated only if marginal rates come down (or taxes are cut in some other way). Voters won’t trust Congress to reform the code if they fear it will lead to a disguised tax increase. It’s not an accident that the only major simplification of the code in the past few decades came in 1986, when Norquist’s formula was followed. The pledge was originally designed to help pass that reform.
Jeb Bush, Graham and other Republicans who favor a deal that cuts spending and raises taxes are naive, in Norquist’s view. President Reagan, he noted, came to regret a similar deal he made in the 1982 budget because the spending cuts didn’t materialize. The 1990 deal, Norquist further argued, didn’t keep spending from coming in a little higher than the Congressional Budget Office had projected from 1991 to 1995.
The debt-ceiling deal last year, on the other hand, showed that getting spending cuts without tax increases was possible.
Discussing hypothetical bargains with 10-to-1 spending cuts, in Norquist’s view, is like debating what the best kind of unicorn would be. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have silver-striped unicorns? No one’s offered you 10-to-1!” he said, raising his voice in frustration.
Norquist may be ticked, but it’s not clear that he’s losing the political fight. He and his pledge were widely said to be in decline in 2005, when Washington Monthly magazine ran a story called “Is Grover Over?” It was wishful thinking. Even amid this year’s budgetary gloom, Norquist said, only five states have raised taxes. Even in liberal California, pledge-takers in the Legislature managed to block tax increases.
In addition to all the members of Congress who have signed the pledge, Norquist told me as I got up to go, 244 candidates have signed it so far this year – more than had signed it in the tea party election of 2010. An aide came in: Make that 245. Norquist went back to smiling: “We haven’t gotten to some people yet.”