It did not take Democratic message moulders long to coin a clever accusatory tagline when Standard & Poor’s bumped the United States from its roster of risk-free debtors. They dubbed it “the Tea Party downgrade.”
Yet, if the refusal by Tea Partiers in Congress to include tax increases in this month’s deficit-reduction plan prompted S&P’s decision, the downgrade is not all their fault. They are beholden to a force far greater than themselves.
That higher power can usually be found in an unremarkable office complex on Washington’s 12th Street, within eyeshot of Capitol Hill. It is there that Grover Norquist has stored the “contracts” in a vault. Neither flood nor fire can release politicians from a vow to never, ever raise taxes.
If signing the Taxpayer Protection pledge is the kind of covenant any aspiring or sitting Republican officeholder must now make in hopes of electoral salvation, Mr. Norquist is the modern GOP’s Supreme Being.
And in the quarter-century since Mr. Norquist devised the pledge, he has never had as big a flock in the U.S. capital. Only seven of 240 Republican members of the House of Representatives have refused to take the anti-tax oath formulated by Mr. Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Fully 40 of 47 GOP senators have taken the pledge.
The no-tax undertaking made by 234 House members (including one Democrat) nixed any consideration of revenue increases in the Aug. 1 deal between Congress and the Obama administration to raise the U.S. Treasury’s borrowing limit, in exchange for an equal amount in deficit reduction.
Without new taxes, reaching the $4-trillion package sought by S&P was all but impossible. The final $2.4-trillion deal hastened the agency’s decision to cut the spotless AAA credit rating to AA-plus for the first time.
Does that make Mr. Norquist Mr. Downgrade?
“This is silly,” he retorts, pointing out that federal spending has “exploded” since President Barack Obama entered office to 25 per cent of gross domestic product from 20 per cent. Meanwhile, tax policy has not changed. “Nice trick of the spenders to shift from overspending to blaming taxpayers. Another example of blaming the victims.”
At the very least, however, Mr. Norquist has made solving the deficit problem more difficult. Counting on spending reductions alone to halt the rate of growth in the $14.3-trillion debt – which is set to exceed $20-trillion by 2021 – would require such deep cuts to everything from Medicare to the military that the federal government would shrink beyond recognition – sapping, many would say, its effectiveness.
Mr. Norquist relishes the prospect.
If his anti-tax agenda did not get far in the 90s – presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton pushed through hefty tax increases– Mr. Norquist hit pay dirt with George W. Bush’s ascension. Mr. Bush moved to slash income, estate and capital gains taxes to post-war lows – costing the U.S. Treasury trillions of dollars in revenue in the past decade.
If Mr. Norquist is able hold so much sway over U.S. fiscal policy, it is only partly because ATR has a generous – albeit unnamed – group of individual and corporate donors backing it. His job is rendered much easier by the anti-tax ethos at the heart of America’s founding myth.
“The problem we have in America is too much spending,” he explains over the phone from an Amtrak train en route to New York. “How in the heck would raising taxes fix that?
“If Obama should stop smoking, you don’t fix that by giving him more cigarettes. If you want him to stop spending, you don’t give him additional money.”
Though he is highly partisan, this 54-year-old from the Boston suburbs is more of a libertarian than a Republican. He considers the war in Afghanistan a waste of money. He sits on the advisory council of GOProud, a lobby group for gay conservatives, and on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association. He is married to a Muslim.
Harvard MBA in hand, Mr. Norquist worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before founding ATR at the height of the Reagan administration. He helped craft the Contract with America that propelled Republicans to their first House majority in four decades under Newt Gingrich in 1994.
Unlike a Franklin D. Roosevelt trying to sell a redistributive New Deal, Mr. Norquist is not exactly tilting at windmills. Americans are among the world’s least taxed citizens, a distinction they consider a badge of honour.
“It is patriotic to be anti-tax,” asserts Marjorie Kornhauser, a law professor and director of the Tax Literacy Project at Arizona State University. “Part of it is ideological. But some of it is just American – a belief, going back to Thomas Jefferson, that we need a small government, even though Jefferson did a lot of big-government things.”
Indeed, the history of the United States is one of tax rebellions – armed insurrections in the early decades of the Republic, revolts at the ballot box in more recent ones. Mr. Norquist is merely channelling what most Americans already seem to believe – that taxes are, at best, a necessary evil.
Like the instigators of those seminal 18th-century anti-tax uprisings, Mr. Norquist is earning his place in American history. He calls the debt-ceiling deal “a tremendous victory for taxpayers.” But it is an even bigger win for him – perhaps the crowning achievement in a mission he began as a 12-year-old campaigning for Richard Nixon in his hometown.
The Bush tax cuts are arguably the principal dividing line in U.S. politics today. Returning to Clinton-era rates on households earning more than $250,000 would cut the U.S. deficit by $800-billion in the next decade. While it is no panacea, Mr. Obama argues for the change out of basic fairness.
During the debt-ceiling negotiations, the President had called for a “grand bargain” involving a reform of the tax code that included raising taxes on the wealthy and changes to social programs. But the tax issue, thanks largely to Mr. Norquist’s pledge, was a deal breaker.
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks puts Mr. Norquist at the top of his list of “Beltway bandits” whose ideological blinders prevented them from seizing on a historic chance to right the American fiscal ship.
“Norquist,” Mr. Brooks recently wrote, “is the Zelig of Republican catastrophe. … He enforces rigid ultimatums that make governance, or even thinking, impossible.”
Though he quite obviously loves the attention, Mr. Norquist, a part-time stand-up comedian, insists he devised the pledge at his mentor Ronald Reagan’s urging to make legislators accountable to voters – not him.
“For 2,000 years, politicians have been promising not to raise taxes. But how were people supposed to know if they meant it?” he offers. “The pledge made it easy for [candidates]to credibly make the commitment and for the American people to enforce [it]”
It is no small irony that Mr. Reagan, who repeatedly raised taxes before 1986, was not in office long enough after that to worry about violating the pledge. His successor was not so lucky.
George H.W. Bush signed the pledge as a candidate in 1988. But when he broke his no-new-taxes vow as part of a 1990 deficit-reduction deal, it cost him a second term in the Oval Office two years later.
“This was an otherwise successful presidency,” Mr. Norquist muses, sounding a bit like a wistful executioner. “The one hole in the bottom of his boat? A tax increase.”
[OPTIONAL CUT]/note>Mr. Norquist dismisses the notion, popular among liberal Democrats, that Tea Party Republicans in the House have held the rest of the country “hostage” to their anti-tax intransigence.
“We have a representative form of government,” he counters. “We elected a majority in the House who committed [to not raising taxes]before [their election] not afterward.”
All six of the Republican House and Senate members named to the 12-member congressional committee that must come up a $1.5-trillion deficit package by November have signed ATR’s pledge.
But should they waver – as Mr. Obama this week pleaded for them to do by putting “what’s best for the country ahead of self-interest or party or ideology” – Mr. Norquist stands ready. Primary season and the 2012 election are fast approaching and ATR can make or break almost any GOP candidate.
“The pledge,” he says, “only gets stronger four months from now.”[END CUT]/note>