One person with outsize 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 that 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 negotiating 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 US 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 Herbert Walker 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% 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," says Howard, "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 only has power because the Republican party and voters give it power. Lawmakers who break the pledge can only lose their seats 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," says Thorndike.
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. 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."