The defund-or-bust posture among Republicans that precipitated this week's government shutdown is only the latest litmus test to gum up the gears of government. Politicians of both parties are increasingly asked to pledge fealty to this cause and that, locking them into positions that forbid the kind of give-and-take that underpins bipartisan legislating.
In the last quarter-century, no purity test has held as much sway as the one crafted by antitax advocate Grover Norquist. His pledge is a simple 65 words, including the signer's name. Those who sign—219 current House members and 39 senators, according to Norquist's tally—vow never to raise taxes. "The pledge," as it is known, is meant to last a lifetime.
It's been wildly successful. Few Republicans—and overwhelmingly the 1,100 signers in elected office across all 50 states are Republicans—ever stray. Those who do are punished at the ballot box. The result: an antitax grip on legislation in capitols across the country, though few are as fierce as the one in Washington, D.C., where few party leaders command the influence that Norquist holds.
"This," an exasperated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declared on the floor last year, "is the Grover Norquist Congress."
Norquist's antitax ideology was ingrained at an early age. As a child, his father would buy him and his siblings ice-cream cones, only to steal bite after bite from them. "Income tax," his father would say. "Sales tax." Norquist says it's not why he became a Republican, but the lesson stuck: "The government keeps coming back for more."
Norquist went on to become a leader of the College Republicans and, later, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 (at President Reagan's request, he said). He had 120 pledge signers by 1986 and has been gathering more ever since.
His ascendency was on display in an August 2011 presidential primary debate, when all the Republican candidates were asked if they would accept a potential budget deal that included 10 dollars in spending cuts in exchange for just one dollar in new taxes. "Who on this stage would walk away from that deal?" asked the moderator. Without hesitation, every Republican on stage raised their right hand, just as they would when taking the oath of office.
Norquist had won.
That presents a problem for good governance, says Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the Senate's most conservative members and a onetime signer of Norquist's pledge who has since become an outspoken critic. "Your oath is to uphold the Constitution," Coburn says. "Litmus tests play on short-term political interests. If you don't do this, 'We're going to do this to you, in your next election.' That doesn't help. It doesn't solve the problems of the country. What it does is polarize us."
It's one of the reasons that talk of a budgetary "grand bargain"—a blend of spending constraints on fast-growing entitlements like Medicare and tax hikes—remains an idea kept alive only in cloistered Washington think tanks. To score the backing of liberal constituencies needed to win primaries, Democrats must pledge never to tinker with entitlements. And nearly all Republicans take the pledge.
The result: record deficits, unrivaled rancor, and endemic gridlock.
Which is fine by Norquist, so long as Democrats hold power and the alternative is a compromise that would include taxes. The budget fight of 2011 is an example. It ended with a deadlocked super committee that was supposed to reach a grand bargain. Instead, sequestration—indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts that were designed to be so loathsome as to never go into effect—is now the law of the land.
Norquist loves it. "We won. They lost. I understand why they're pissed," he says. "It was a 10-year bending down of the cost curve. It was tremendous progress. It is difficult to impossible to see how you could have gotten a better spending limit through a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president."
But, in a fascinating twist, this father of litmus-test politics is held in less-than-honorable esteem by the next generation of no-compromise conservatives he has helped birth. He's a squish, they say, complaining he hasn't joined the defund Obamacare fight (instead, he's tossed cold water on it), that he backed the GOP leadership in the 2011 budget fight (instead of pushing for an unrealistic constitutional amendment capping spending) and, chiefly, that he acquiesced to raising taxes on the rich in January when the Bush tax cuts expired.
"Grover has lost a little of his cachet with the conservative grass roots because he's fought too often on the side of the establishment," said one senior conservative strategist, who declined to be named because the person still works with Norquist.
Norquist, who has heard the grumbling, said he has remained faithful to the pledge. His critics live in a "fantasyland," he says. "Stating your fervent belief in Tinker Bell does not make you hardcore. It makes you a believer in Tinker Bell."
Taxes would have gone up on every American this January if Congress did nothing. Voting to make permanent 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts was a huge win, he says. As for the current showdown between congressional Republicans and President Obama, he was dismissive of those who've led the GOP into battle without a plan for victory.
"Guys, you don't win by whining about how much you want," Norquist said. "You win by getting more than you have."
Few have done that better than he has. And Washington is all the more knotted because of it.