“We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals — and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.” — Grover Norquist
Grover Norquist is an anti-tax Republican hardliner from Washington, D.C. He is also, according to political analyst John Maginnis, “the man in charge of tax policy in Louisiana.”
Earlier this month, Maginnis explained that Norquist loomed over Gov. Bobby Jindal’s opposition to a bill that would trim state subsidies to filmmakers. There was widespread support for the legislation, and even the Louisiana movie industry was OK with it. But Jindal shares Norquist’s belief that plugging loopholes is tantamount to raising taxes — which is the blood-red line a Norquister will never cross — so the effort stalled. Maginnis observed: “Not even the willingness of those taxed can overcome the governor’s opposition. That’s because he answers to a higher power: Grover Norquist.”
This raises the question: Why does Norquist get to pull Jindal’s strings? And can’t the governor give ordinary Louisianans a turn?
Last week, Maginnis wrote about Norquist’s influence on yet another bill, which proposed a two-cent monthly tax on cell phones to fund services for the hearing impaired:
Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, D.C., and creator of the pledge signed by many American politicians to oppose all net tax increases. Certainly, he wasn’t following the [cell phone tax] debate at the time, but staff members for his ally, Gov. Bobby Jindal, sent word to legislators that a vote for House Bill 238 would be scored by ATR as a tax increase and, thus, a violation of the pledge.
It’s a sad day when the governor of Louisiana has to use a special-interest group’s scorecard to muscle wayward legislators. Jindal’s stock in Baton Rouge must be trading very low when he can’t goad the old fashioned way — with threats and bribes.
Norquist’s ATR pledge, like most political pledges, is silly. It’s a superfluous exercise for politicians who already believe that no circumstance could ever warrant more taxes. And for those who don’t fully agree — but buckle to pressure and sign it anyway — their capitulation probably reveals more about them than any ATR rating that might later be bestowed.
Some may wonder why an airtight tax pledge needs to be “scored.” Isn’t it a pass/fail-type situation? Not exactly. ATR also grades pledge-signers (and other office-holders) on whether they adequately “defended the taxpayer” on key votes. Norquist selects which ones are key. Very few pledge-signers can claim a 100-percent rating, since some conservatives might differ on Norquist’s libertarian views about free trade and increased immigration. (He’s for both.) Nonetheless, Norquist assures everyone that his views perfectly align with the “American Taxpayer” — a mythical species known to regard all politics as national. That national perspective — not Louisiana’s actual and urgent needs — is what the ATR rating reflects.
Certain key tax votes are extra important to ATR, and are given “Pledge Breaker” status. If you cross Norquist on one of those, it doesn’t matter how much you agree on the other stuff — you’re labeled a Pledge Breaker.
Occasionally pledge signers feel handcuffed by the document, and they get a little cranky. In 2011 U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R- Lafayette, told editors of The Daily Advertiser newspaper that he would not re-sign the pledge. (ATR asks for yearly renewals of the pledge, even though there’s no expiration date on it.) Boustany said the pledge was constraining, and Congress should have the flexibility to “do the right thing for the American people.” Yet in the next breath he assured the editors he would not raise taxes.
The next time Boustany was up for re-election, he went back on his word and dutifully signed Norquist’s compact.
What Boustany needed was an interest group that pressures politicians into pledging that they will not sign any more pledges. That way, the next time Norquist phoned him he could say, “Sorry, Grover, I’d love to re-commit to ATR, but I already signed the SLAP [Sensible Leaders Against Pledges] pledge so I’m afraid my hands are tied … Hello?”
Norquist believes a written commitment instills more discipline, since pols often walk back their verbal promises. Perhaps that’s true. But most voters have never heard of ATR and their votes aren’t much influenced by interest-group ratings. One thing that might influence voters, especially in Louisiana, is if they were made aware of the following: The ATR tax pledge obligates its signers to oppose any disaster relief or recovery legislation paid for by higher net taxes, even at the federal level. Imagine if, say, a disaster occurs on the Gulf Coast, and the only viable recovery bill is coupled with a tax of a penny per gallon on gasoline sales in 50 states. ATR pledge signers, even those in the Louisiana delegation, will have to oppose it, stiffing disaster victims along our own Gulf Coast.
Luckily for the six Republicans in our congressional delegation, all of whom have signed the pledge, the media doesn’t pin them down on such uncomfortable hypotheticals.
For Norquist’s “American Taxpayer,” you see, local circumstances are distracting noise, because all politics is national. (But please say “principle” instead of “national.” It sounds better.)
Current U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, collapsed into Norquist’s arms early on. When he was a state representative in 2005, ATR named him chair of Louisiana’s Taxpayer Protection Caucus. Scalise moved to Congress and, after years of consistent hard-right votes, became chair of the House’s powerful (and strongly conservative) Republican Study Committee.
During the fiscal-cliff debate last year, a few Republicans pushed back against the strictness of the ATR pledge. Scalise defended Norquist, saying he was “proud to be a pledge signer.” Norquist returns such favors, and has raised Scalise’s profile by favorably citing him during interviews on cable TV. He even put Scalise on ATR’s 2012 holiday “nice” list. These days, ATR works closely with Scalise and “industry leaders” to grandstand against carbon-tax legislation that was never going anywhere anyway.
All right, Norquist is dogmatic. But is he other than a crusader who wants to liberate Americans and lighten the federal purse? He believes what he believes, and fights hard for it, even at the state level. He might prize loyalty, but that’s the currency of politics. What’s the problem here?
Well, let’s not forget that he’s a part of the GOP, not just some outsider who would like to align the Republican brand with his own ideas. He holds Wednesday Meetings in D.C with conservative leaders and Republican officeholders to coordinate policy and political strategy.
For Republicans who aspire to higher office, Norquist is a power-broker who can make their path much easier, or much more difficult. It’s not easy to bypass him, either. Notice that a low percentage of state legislators sign the ATR pledge, but a much higher percentage of federal officeholders commit themselves to it. Norquist’s influence grows as Republicans climb the ladder. By the time they run for president, the pledge is de rigueur. Nine of 10 Republican presidential hopefuls signed last year, the lone exception being former Utah governor John Huntsman, and he didn’t get too far.
Which brings us back to Jindal. Recall that local pundits reflexively maintain that Jindal has not lost his “tax virginity” — in other words, Jindal has never defiled his conservatism by supporting net tax increases. But the old ATR scorecards — so handy! — tell a different story. When Jindal was a congressman from Kenner, he cast several votes against the interest of the “American Taxpayer.” During his three years in Congress (2005-2007), Jindal received ATR scores of 79, 100, and a wretched 50. Worst of all, Jindal became an official “Pledge Breaker” when he voted for the gargantuan 2007 farm bill which included $4 billion in new taxes. Jindal said he was “proud” to support the legislation that included a tax hike (as well as massive ethanol subsidies).
Let the record show that Jindal lost his “tax virginity” years ago, on a farm bill.
Interestingly, Norquist was unfazed by the apostasy. Perhaps he knew Jindal had to court rural voters who had cost him the governorship four years earlier. Or maybe Norquist loved Jindal’s political potential and gave him a pass. Either way, two things happened around that time: Jindal made a very convincing recommitment to the ATR pledge, and Norquist decided that political circumstances can excuse a broken pledge (if you’re a GOP up-and-comer, that is).
How else can we explain Norquist’s suddenly intense support for Jindal, the young Pledge Breaker? Norquist has held lifetime grudges against other tax raisers, yet the year after the farm bill vote he expressed the highest hopes for Jindal: “The question is not whether he’ll be president, but when he’ll be president, because he will be elected someday.”
In 2012 Norquist endorsed Jindal for vice president, and last year he wrote that Jindal’s tax swap plan could be the “boldest, most pro-growth state tax reform in U.S. history.” Pretty high praise for an initiative that died in the crib.
Norquist is always good for a quote, of course. Most famously, he said, “My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
As federal flood-protection systems are completed in New Orleans, and Louisiana embarks on new coastal restoration mega-projects, Norquist’s dream of a bathtub-sized government seems a bit out of step. Then again, his policy response to Katrina was to … urge repeal of the estate tax.
Here’s a Norquist quote you haven’t heard. In 2004, the Spanish paper El Mundo asked him if he thought the Democratic Party was coming to an end. He replied:
Yes, because in addition their demographic base is shrinking. Each year, 2 million people who fought in the Second World War and lived through the Great Depression die. This generation has been an exception in American history, because it has defended anti-American policies. They voted for the creation of the welfare state and obligatory military service. They are the base of the Democratic Party. And they are dying. And, at the same time, all the time more Americans have stocks. That makes them defend the interests of business, because it is their own interest. Because of that, it’s impossible to bring to the fore policies of social hate, of class warfare.
And here’s another of Norquist’s deeply held beliefs: that the Greatest Generation — the men and women who endured the Great Depression, saved the world from fascism, and helped the U.S. become a prosperous Superpower — was anti-American.
Apparently Norquist would prefer to be living in an earlier era, one prior to New Deal welfare programs, prior to progressive workplace reforms, prior to the dreaded national income tax. Maybe the Gilded Age would suit him — that lovely part of our history characterized by roller-coaster economic cycles, recurring panics, the Long Depression, monopolies, and a frightening lack of worker rights.
It’s precisely this sort of volatile, unfettered capitalism that inevitably over-expands, creating the conditions for socialist (and fascist and communist) political backlashes. But Norquist has a solution for that danger: install a permanent GOP majority in government.
For all his anti-government schtick, Norquist doesn’t have qualms about deeply entangling the corporatocracy in federal governance.
Recall that Norquist helped create the infamous K-Street project which populated Washington’s lobbyist row with conservatives who had top access to Republicans in Congress. The K-Street scheme was ripe for corruption, as evidenced by lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s $32 million shakedown of Louisiana’s Coushatta tribe, which landed him in prison.
Central to this project was Norquist’s silly fantasy of permanent partisan victory. Ten years ago, at the apex of GOP power, he foresaw a long, permanent Republican majority. How? “We will make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.” More recently, at a Seattle Tea Party event Norquist said: “I intend to win. I intend to be part of the whole effort to crush the other team.”
I think it’s his taste for a partisan blood-letting that most motivates Norquist. He doesn’t just want to win, he wants a permanent partisan triumph. But why should we Louisianans pay the price for Norquist’s ideological extremism, and partisan power-wielding? His views control Jindal’s decisions on taxes, and his pledge scuttles common-sense state legislation that requires even an ounce of compromise. (In the past, he has likened bipartisanship to “date rape.”) He’s an unseen controlling force in Louisiana politics, yet both his ideas and goals are implausible, if not offensive.
We would be better off if our conservative leaders severed their pledge to Norquist and had the courage to stand for their own ideas.