Comments from Republicans signaling a willingness to break with Grover Norquist’s antitax pledge triggered a flood of headlines declaring that the “pledge is dead” and that “Grover is over.” The suggestion was the longtime small-government crusader had lost his leverage with the GOP.
But reports of the death of Norquist’s clout appear to be exaggerated, or at least premature. It is indeed significant that high-profile lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have indicated they might break the pledge if needed to seal a broad deficit-reduction deal. Still, more than 95 percent of GOP lawmakers currently in Congress, including those on tax-writing committees, have signed Norquist’s pledge—and most of them are keeping quiet, for now. Moreover, the deal-makers at the center of fiscal-cliff negotiations are only working within broad frameworks at the moment, and any vote to increase taxes is still a long way off.
The week did not start off well for Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Graham and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., both distanced themselves from the pledge this weekend, as did outspoken Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. On Monday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., quickly followed suit.
But even the Republicans who have indicated they could agree to higher taxes as part of a broader budget deal have qualified their remarks by emphasizing that they would do so only in exchange for significant entitlement cuts from Democrats.
It’s a trade-off that Norquist, for one, does not see materializing.
With the clock ticking toward the Jan. 1 deadline to avert the fiscal cliff of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts, Norquist told National Journal Daily earlier this month that he was not losing any sleep worrying that House Republicans would cave in to Democratic demands for higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans as part of negotiations over a “grand bargain” on the budget. He has said he remains confident that the White House and Senate Democrats will be unwilling to get behind the kinds of cost savings in entitlements that Republicans would insist upon as part of any deal.
In fact, he derided the possibility of a bipartisan bargain as a “Gift of the Magi” fantasy. The two sides, he noted, “don’t love each other.”
“That gets into what color unicorn would I really like if unicorns existed,” he said when pressed on the prospects for a deal.
Cato Institute fellow Dan Mitchell also said that Republicans who are backing off of their position on taxes with the hope of reforming entitlements were engaging in little more than wishful thinking.
“If they actually think they’ll get anything in exchange, they’re just as naive as Bush in ’90 and Reagan in ’82,” Mitchell said. President Reagan reportedly joked when he left office that he was “still waiting” for the $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases promised by former House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Still, sensing the party could be sailing in perilous waters, some Republicans are angling to strike a deal while keeping true to their conservative beliefs.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who told the National Journal Daily he considers Norquist a friend, urged his colleagues to consider letting rates go up on higher-income Americans in return for reforms in the next legislative session, according to a report.
The expiration of the Bush tax cuts creates a problem for Republicans, Cole said. Rates are set to go up whether the GOP votes for a hike or not. So there's no conflict with the spirit of the pledge.
"We are in a dilemma. They're going up anyway. … If doing nothing raises taxes more than doing something, I think I'd be in favor of doing something," Cole said.
All of the focus on Republicans distancing themselves from Norquist, in fact, underscores that the antitax activist’s power is actually primarily symbolic. Norquist may be an eminently quotable lightning rod, but the pledge itself is simply an articulation of a central tenet of conservative orthodoxy. If opposition to tax hikes were not at the core of the party’s philosophy, insiders note, Norquist’s support would evaporate.
“The bottom line is that while Norquist gets the attention, the tax pledge is the unifying glue that holds the Republican Party together,” said Congressional Institute President Mark Strand, a onetime chief of staff for former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo.
Norquist and the pledge itself are really “a media infatuation,” according to Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “It’s shorthand for ‘uncompromising Republicans,’ ” he said.
It’s a point Norquist himself makes: One of his more familiar talking points is that politicians don’t sign a pledge to him, but to their constituents.
And it’s those constituents, Norquist suggested to National Journal Daily, who will keep lawmakers in line.
“I don’t think there’s a Republican in the House who could break away from the rest of the party and vote with the Democrats for a tax increase of any size and survive a primary,” Norquist said.
Chambliss is a member of the bipartisan Gang of Six, which has given tacit support to raising taxes by more than $1 trillion, and Corker is circulating his own grand-bargain-style plan. But small-government activists don’t seem too concerned about the risk of a groundswell of Republican willingness to raise taxes. After all, it’s not like the GOP’s budget guru, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has reversed course, and neither has House Speaker John Boehner.
“From our perspective, generally what Boehner has said does not give us concern,” Chocola said. “What I’ve heard him say is we’re not going to raise rates [and] we’ve always been advocates of broadening the base, lowering the rates.”
But keeping the pledge is important, policy wonks and strategists said, because it separates the promise not to raise taxes from the dozens of other soon-to-be-abandoned promises made during a campaign.
“The whole reason for the pledge is that Republicans come to Washington thinking it’s a cesspool, and after a few years they decide it’s a hot tub,” Mitchell said. “It’s easy to raise campaign contributions when you’re giving away other people’s money.”
This article appears in the Nov. 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.