Grover Norquist: Father of the Blood Oath

National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
Oct. 2, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

Who do you think broke Wash­ing­ton? Tell us here.

What We're Following See More »
Bill Murray Crashes White House Briefing Room
8 hours ago

In town to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center, Bill Murray casually strolled into the White House Briefing Room this afternoon. A spokesman said he was at the executive mansion for a chat with President Obama, his fellow Chicagoan.

CFPB Decision May Reverberate to Other Agencies
11 hours ago

"A federal appeals court's decision that declared the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau an arm of the White House relies on a novel interpretation of the constitution's separation of powers clause that could have broader effects on how other regulators" like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
11 hours ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
1 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
1 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.