He’s never been elected to any public office, never appeared on any ballot in any state – but Grover Norquist, 56, president of the conservative anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, can still claim to be one of the most powerful people in Washington, D.C., even as his reputation faces new threats because of key Republican defections from the written “pledge” to prevent tax increases.
The backpedaling on the pledge comes as Congress grapples with ways to prevent toppling over the fiscal cliff before the end of the year – and as a few Republicans have indicated that all options, including revenue increases, need to be considered.
On Monday morning Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, also downplayed the written pledge that’s been signed by 258 members of the 213th Congress, including 219 in the House and 39 in the Senate. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Cantor reiterated that GOP House members “weren’t elected to raise taxes” – but then noted: “A lot has been said about this pledge, and I will tell you when I go to the constituents that reelected me, it is not about that pledge, it really is about trying to solve problems.”
This comes after other recent anti-pledge putdowns by Rep. Peter King of New York, who said he no longer feels bound by what he signed decades ago – “The world has changed,” he said on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” – and by Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as well.
Still, Norquist maintains pledge signers have made a vow not to raise taxes to their constituents, not to him – and that voters will remember if their elected representatives break the pledge. “If you want to go to your voters and say, ‘I promised you this, and I’m breaking my promise,’ you can have that conversation,” he told CNN on Monday. “You’re not having an argument with me. You’ve made a commitment to your voters.”
As the debate intensifies, here are a few other things you may not know about the man behind the anti-tax mantra:
1. Norquist shakes off worries about recent defectors because he says that in the end, “almost nobody breaks the pledge.” As he told The Fiscal Times earlier this year, “George Herbert Walker Bush is the one example of the guy who did [break the pledge], and he threw away a perfectly good presidency. There was no other reason for him to lose the election [to Bill Clinton, in 1992]. There wasn’t anything else he did wrong. The ‘read my lips, no new taxes’ line is what got him elected, but then he lied about it. He raised taxes and spent more money. The lie was, ‘I’m gonna cut taxes and raise spending.’ That’s not what happened. He raised taxes and spent more. It was stupid. It didn’t work.”
2. The actual signed pledges – the original documents, with the signatures of political leaders – are sitting “in a vault, in case D.C. burns down,” Norquist told The Washington Post. “When someone takes the pledge, you don’t want it tampered with. You don’t want it destroyed.”
3. He’s appeared with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show a number of times, mostly to promote his books. Stewart is among a chorus of people who have questioned the simplicity and practicality of the pledge. As he said to Norquist earlier this year, “When you come out and say, ‘We're never gonna raise taxes,’ I understand that’s a great branding. But as a governing policy, it seems too easy and pandering.”
4. Norquist is noted for this widely quoted quip: “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
5. He formed Americans for Tax Reform in the mid 1980s, with President Ronald Reagan’s support, and first collected the signatures of Jack Kemp, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich.
6. In the library of his headquarters, he keeps some 100 copies of one of his own books, Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives. He also has shelves full of the books that contain quotes by him – as well as stuffed “Sesame Street” Grover dolls, according to an interview he did with The Washington Post.
7. Born in Weston, Massachusetts, Norquist volunteered for Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1968 as a 12-year-old, assisting with get-out-the-vote efforts.
8. He earned both a B.A. and an M.B.A. from Harvard University and was an editor at The Harvard Crimson. He once said: “When I became 21, I decided that nobody learned anything about politics after the age of 21.”
9. He worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from 1983 to 1984, as an economist and as a chief speechwriter.
10. Norquist traveled to several war zones to help support anti-Soviet guerrilla armies in the second half of the 1980s. He worked with a support network for Oliver North’s efforts with the Nicaraguan Contras and other insurgencies, in addition to helping to organize anti-Soviet forces in Laos.
11. Along with Newt Gingrich, Norquist was one of the co-authors of the 1994 Contract with America.
12. He was instrumental in securing early support for the presidential campaign of Governor George W. Bush, and acted as his unofficial liaison to conservative groups. He campaigned for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. After Bush’s first election, Norquist helped craft the Bush tax cuts.
13. Norquist has arranged regular meetings for conservatives in many states across the country. The meetings are modeled after his Wednesday meetings in Washington, with the goal of creating a nationwide network of conservative activists that he can call upon to support conservative causes, such as tax cuts and deregulation. There are meetings in 48 states.
14. “Democrats don’t want to cut spending,” Norquist told The Fiscal Times. “They just want to raise taxes. Obama and the Democrats want this massive increase in spending to be their life’s work. It’s what they want to do. You’re going to talk them into giving that up? What they want is to raise taxes, so they can fund their higher spending levels. They want to drive spending up and then pull taxes up to meet it. And our job is to say no – we’ve got to bring spending down, not pull taxes up... And you don’t have an agreement if nothing’s written down.”
15. He wrote in Debacle, his most recent book (out earlier this year): “By 2016, after two terms, President Obama will most likely have overseen an increase of $100,000 in the share of the national debt facing the average family of four. That is amazingly fast and it is four times faster than the debt accumulated under President G.W. Bush. Obviously, this cannot keep going on, or we will approach the Greek crisis. Americans really need to ask themselves a question: Have people really noticed their lives so greatly improved by the increased government spending that it is worth all this new debt?”