The Man Behind The GOP's No-Tax Pledge

Jul 14, 2011
Originally published on July 14, 2011 10:19 pm

One person with outsized influence in the debate over raising the debt ceiling is not at the negotiating table. Instead, he sits in downtown Washington at the offices of Americans for Tax Reform, a group he has run for a quarter century. From there, Grover Norquist fields phone calls and emails from some of the people who are at the table, and he holds them to their pledge.

"The pledge" is a promise not to raise taxes. It is considered mandatory for many Republican candidates. Most Republican members of the House and Senate have signed it, as have many Republicans in statehouses across the country. The man who created it seems to Washington insiders like a constant. Norquist has been a fixture in every major important tax debate for decades.

But when he started in politics in the 1960s, communism-fighting was his thing. Eventually he turned one eye to the size of the U.S. government.

"When the Soviet Union went away, it became time to focus even more on keeping the American government to a small size," he said during an interview Tuesday.

Norquist has never been a numbers wonk. He's not the kind of guy who pores over complicated tax formulas. "I was a math guy as a kid," he says. "I was really good at math. I wasn't particularly interested in it."

He describes the most important element of math in his line of work as this symbol: <

Its meaning? "Less."

"Less government, less regulation, lower taxes. That little less than sign?" he says, "That's a pretty good part of the math."

Taxes became Norquist's sole focus when President Reagan asked him to run Americans for Tax Reform in 1985. The group says its money comes from individuals and companies, but the donor list is not public.

Norquist's pledge gained strength after presidential candidate George H.W. Bush signed on in 1988. When President Bush later broke the "read my lips" promise in 1990, it sent a message, says Norquist.

"Take the pledge, win the primary. Take the pledge, win the general. Break the pledge, lose," Norquist says. "And when voters knew that elected officials and politicians understood that the pledge was to be signed but not broken, then it became a much more powerful tool for elected officials to communicate with voters as to who they are. It became a credible promise."

Today most of the Republican Party charts its course on taxes using Norquist as an unmoving North Star. To Democrats, he is the roadblock standing in the way of compromise on the debt ceiling negotiations.

President Obama could have been speaking directly to Norquist at Monday's White House news conference when he said, "If each side takes a maximalist position, if each side wants 100 percent of what its ideological predispositions are, then we can't get anything done."

But there is a question as to whether Norquist is the cause or the effect — whether he created the Republican Party's stance on taxes or just expresses it.

Longtime Republican operative Jack Howard argues that Norquist reflects where the Republican Party would be anyway. He believes Democrats overstate Norquist's influence.

"They'd really like to make Grover the bugaboo of this whole thing," he says, "but really I think the House Republican leadership and the Senate Republican leadership would be just as adamant about the whole tax issue if Grover's group didn't exist."

According to this reasoning, the pledge not to raise taxes has power only because the Republican Party and voters give it power. Lawmakers who break the pledge can lose their seats only if people care enough about that broken promise to vote accordingly.

But historian Joe Thorndike of the group Tax Analysts says that description misses something important. Thorndike argues that Norquist the Enforcer has moved the Republican Party solidly to the right.

"I think what Grover managed to do was to take something which is sort of amorphous and not prone to being pinned down very well, which is political rhetoric, and he found a very public, very convincing way to create some accountability behind rhetoric," he says.

Other groups across the ideological spectrum have tried to hold lawmakers to their promises on other issues, but almost none has been as successful as Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist believes that's because other issues have many facets. In contrast, "The tax issue, size of government, has one," he says. "Up or down, yes or no. It's binary."

Sometimes the black and white of taxation can look a little gray. Lawmakers have been known to come to Norquist seeking guidance on whether a specific bill fulfills the pledge or not.

Norquist waves these questions aside. "The pledge is always clear-cut," he says. "The only time people come and ask me whether something is or isn't a tax increase is when they know G.D. well it is a tax increase and they're hoping to slip it past."

That unblinking certainty is one of many things that drives Norquist's critics up the wall. They say he lives in a world without nuance. To him, a vote to eliminate loopholes and corporate giveaways is only permissible if lawmakers cut an equal amount in taxes elsewhere.

"That's what's amazing about Grover Norquist," says Neera Tanden of the liberal Center for American Progress. "It's not that he's created an anti-tax allergic reaction within the Republican Party. It's that he's been able to define anything that takes away tax subsidies for corporations as a tax increase."

To Norquist, it all comes back to the "less than" symbol. His goal is not to perfect the tax code. He doesn't aspire to make government work better. For him, tax cuts are a means to the end of shrinking government. "Our job," he says, "is to make people free."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In the debate over the debt ceiling, one person who has outsized influence is not actually at the negotiating table. Grover Norquist is famous for creating The Pledge. It's a promise not to raise taxes and it is considered mandatory for many GOP candidates.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this story about Norquist and whether he is the manufacturer or the product of the Republican Party's line on taxes.

ARI SHAPIRO: Grover Norquist has been involved in tax debates for a quarter century. But when he started in politics, fighting communism was his thing. Eventually, he turned to the size of the U.S. government.

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Founder/President, Americans for Tax Reform): And when the Soviet Union went away, it became time to focus even more on keeping the American government to a small size.

SHAPIRO: I spoke with Norquist Tuesday in his downtown Washington office, where he runs the group Americans for Tax Reform. The group says its money comes from individuals and companies, but the donor list is not public.

Norquist has never been a numbers wonk. He's not the kind of guy who pores over complicated tax formulas.

Mr. NORQUIST: I was a math guy as a kid. I was really good at math but I wasn't particularly interested in it.

SHAPIRO: He says in his line of work the most important element of math is the little symbol pointing to the left that means less than.

Mr. NORQUIST: Less government, less regulation, lower taxes. So that little, you know, less than sign, that's a pretty good part of the math.

SHAPIRO: Today, most of the Republican Party charts its course on taxes using Norquist as an unmoving North Star. To Democrats, he is the roadblock standing in the way of compromise. But there's a question whether Norquist is the cause or the effect: whether he created the Republican Party's stance on taxes or just expresses that stance. Longtime Republican operative Jack Howard believes Democrats overstate Norquist's influence.

Mr. JACK HOWARD: They like to kind of make Grover the bugaboo of this whole thing, but really I think the House Republicans and House Republican leadership and the Senate Republican leadership would be just as adamant about the whole tax issue if, you know, Grover's group didn't exist.

SHAPIRO: The thinking on this side of the argument goes: the pledge not to raise taxes only has power because the Republican Party and voters give it power. Lawmakers who break the pledge can only lose their seats if the people care enough about that broken promise to actually vote accordingly.

But historian Joe Thorndike of the group Tax Analysts says that description misses something important. Thorndike says Norquist the enforcer has moved the Republican Party solidly to the right.

Mr. JOE THORNDIKE (Historian, Tax Analysts): I think what Grover managed to do was to take something which is sort of amorphous and not prone to being pinned down very well, which is political rhetoric, and he found a very public, very convincing way to create some accountability behind rhetoric.

SHAPIRO: I asked Norquist why he has been more successful than other groups that have tried to hold lawmakers to promises on other issues.

Mr. NORQUIST: Many, many issues have many, many facets. The tax issue, size of government, has one, up or down, yes or no. It's binary.

SHAPIRO: The yes or no can sometimes get a little gray, and lawmakers will come to you to find out whether a specific bill fulfills the pledge or not.

Mr. NORQUEST: Actually the pledge is always clear cut. The only time people come and ask me whether something is or isn't a tax increase is when they know GD well it is a tax increase and they're hoping to slip it past.

SHAPIRO: And that's one of many things that drives Norquist's critics up the wall. They say he lives in a world without nuance. To him, a vote to eliminate loopholes and corporate giveaways is only permissible if lawmakers cut an equal amount in taxes elsewhere. Neera Tanden is with the liberal Center for American Progress.

Ms. NEERA TANDEN (Chief Operating Officer, Center for American Progress): I mean, that's what's amazing about Grover Norquist. It's not that he's created an anti-tax allergic reaction within the Republican Party. It's that he's been able to define anything that takes away tax subsidies for corporations as a tax increase.

To Norquist, it all comes back to the less than symbol. His goal is not to perfect the tax code. He doesn't aspire to make government work better. Tax cuts for him are just a means to the end of shrinking government. Our job, he says, is to make people free.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.