News Section: Opinion
Who is Grover Norquist and Why is the GOP So Afraid of Him?
As the Congressional super-committee on cutting the deficit zeroes in on its Thanksgiving deadline, one name keeps coming up – Grover Norquist. Norquist is a lobbyist who specializes in one thing: making sure the richest Americans in the country pay as little in taxes as possible. Since starting Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, he has become one of the most powerful conservative forces in Washington and either a blessing or a curse on Republicans seeking political office.
Norquist's political involvement goes all the way back to President Nixon, for whom he campaigned as a student. An undergrad and MBA graduate of Harvard, Norquist quickly built a reputation as being one of the best political organizers in politics. In fact, he is credited as co-author of both the GOP's Contract with America and President Bush's tax cuts. He once famously quipped, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
From very early in his career, Norquist was seen as the voice of traditional, William F. Buckley-style conservatism and it is largely acknowledged that his assistance to George W. Bush, in terms of rallying support amongst traditional conservatives who were skeptical of the then-governor's conservative credentials, was key to Bush's 2000 primary win. But now, as Republican politicians sweat the frightening reality of not meeting their looming deadline to cut an additional $1.5 trillion from the budget and the European debt crisis continues to loom, most are wishing he'd disappear, and some are even daring to run afoul of his rules.
photo by Gage Skidmore
Norquist's infamous pledge, which is essentially an eternal promise to vote against anything that can be construed as a tax increase, under any circumstances, has been a good housekeeping seal of approval for GOP candidates. When Norquist arbitrarily decided that allowing the temporary Bush tax cuts to expire when they were supposed to was akin to a hike, the GOP quickly fell into line for fear of being tarred as pledge-breakers.
236 of 242 Republicans in the House, and 40 of 47 in the Senate have signed ATR's pledge at some point in their careers – and as some have found out, going against it for any reason, will see that seal revoked, while opening the door for primary challenges, something that has become a genuine threat only recently, mostly because of the strong turnout among Tea Party activists who mostly agree with ATR's position of "opposing all tax increases as a matter of principle."
Former senator Alan Simpson (R-WYO) attacked Norquist's influence at a recent super-committee hearing arguing that, "If Grover Norquist is now the most powerful man in America, he should run for president. Let me tell you, he has people in thrall."
Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) is one of Norquist's pledge signers, but he argues that he signed it all the way back in 1994. “It’s time to put pledges in a bonfire,” the Congressman said last week after helping to enlist 39 other Republicans to join 60 Democrats in a letter to the budget deficit super-committee calling for a bargain that contains both revenue increases and spending reductions to close the gap.
Norquist, who was at one time a close associate of disgraced Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abromoff, has seemingly filled Casino Jack's void as the most powerful non-politician on the beltway. Abromoff had to relinquish the title to serve federal time on conspiracy charges and though Norquist was alleged to have used ATR as a conduit for Indian Casino interests seeking to gain influence, he was never charged. Norquist's primary focus is taxes and he pulls in over $200,000 annually just for his part-time (24 hours weekly) job with Americans for Tax Reform, but he's also reportedly lobbied on everything from the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to, according to a report in Politico, opposition of internet regulations aimed at curbing the sale of child pornography online.
Norquist's tent seems a little broader than his typical ultra-conservative supporter. In fact, he even co-founded the Islamic Free Market Institute, where his wife, an Islamic woman from Kuwait, formerly served as director.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) took the House floor earlier this month to criticize Norquist's association with Abramoff, as well as his representation of convicted terrorist financier Abdurahman Alamoudi. "I believe Mr. Norquist is connected with or has profited from a number of unsavory people and groups out of the mainstream," Wolf said.
Norquist's full dossier might incense the large swath of conservatives who claim that Muslims seeking to implement Sharia Law in the United States is a serious security threat. If his stranglehold on the tax issue continues to be an impediment, while Congress begins to realize how far they really are from reaching, and the potential consequences of missing the deficit-reduction deadline, I'd expect their desire to limit his influence to grow and that might start by shifting the focus to Norquist's full body of work.
For now, Congress seems content, as usual, to ignore it, while hoping it goes away. When asked about his presence and influence (see video above), House Speaker John Boehner tried to shrug it off, laughing nervously that their focus was on creating jobs and claiming that he wasn't used to being asked about a “random citizen.” You could here echoes of laughter throughout the beltway at such a benign description.
With Thanksgiving approaching, it remains to be seen who laughs last, though it seems unlikely that it will be average Americans who seem once again destined to have their best interests placed behind political maneuverings, even during one of the most serious crises in our nation's history. If Norquist blinks, his power will evaporate. If the GOP leadership kisses his ring and in doing so tanks the deficit deal, they've got to face the responsibility for what follows. This is a game of chicken with high stakes and I hope they're all smart enough not to burn down the entire castle in a fight over a single rug.
Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. An archive of his columns is available here. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook and Twitter by clicking the badges below.