Americans for Tax Reform
“Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle,” declares an italicized sentence prominently featured on Americans for Tax Reform’s website. Indeed, the 501(c)(4) lobbying organization would prefer to see tax revenue shrink to the point that, in the words of ATR president Grover Norquist, one could “drag [the government] into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
ATR asks all candidates for office to sign its Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a promise not only to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses” but also to work against the elimination of deductions or credits. Signed by the vast majority of Republican lawmakers over the last quarter-century, the pledge is a means of ensuring that they think twice about giving any ground on legislation that would raise revenue, even to pay for essential and popular programs. Lawmakers who violate the pledge – or who neglect to sign it – often face a well-funded effort to undermine them in their home districts. In 2011, ATR’s influence was part of what stymied negotiations to raise the debt ceiling – a relatively routine legislative matter to allow the government to pay its bills – because the congressional GOP refused to compromise on new tax revenue.
ATR’s patterns of fundraising and spending are typical of “dark money” non-profit issue advocacy groups that actually spend primarily on campaigns. For instance, in 2010 ATR raised $12.4 million, which shrunk to $4.1 million in 2011, and exploded to $31 million in 2012. The Boston Globe reported in 2006 that corporate interests fund a significant portion of ATR’s activities.
In fact, ATR has been criticized frequently for pushing the border of election laws, starting in 1996 when investigators accused the group of violating its tax-exempt status by coordinating closely with the RNC. No punishment was levied, and ATR continued its political activity. Although FEC rules dictate that electioneering cannot compose the majority of a 501(c)(4)’s activity, in 2012, political electioneering represented 51% of ATR’s budget.
The organization was also involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal. The Washington Post reported that “Americans for Tax Reform served as a ‘conduit’ for funds that flowed from Abramoff’s clients to surreptitiously finance grass-roots lobbying campaigns. As the money passed through, Norquist’s organization kept a small cut…” An aide to Sen. John McCain joked, “By his own admission, Grover couldn’t be any closer to Abramoff if they moved to Massachusetts and got married.” Despite his organization’s involvement, neither Norquist nor ATR faced any punishment. Prior to that, the Oregon Department of Justice found that ATR served as a “conduit” in a “laundering scheme” and ATR was “found guilty of violating Oregon election laws,” although Oregon officials did not pursue a case.
Another portion of Americans for Tax Reform’s mission is the “Ronald Reagan Legacy Project” which “is committed to preserving the legacy of one of America’s greatest presidents throughout the nation and abroad.” This includes asking governors to declare February 6th as “Ronald Reagan Day” and, in what the New Republic called Norquist’s “true legacy,” he “got Washington National Airport renamed Reagan National Airport, removing the first president’s name in order to insert the name of a president whose only lasting contribution to aviation was to fire 11,345 air traffic controllers.”
Grover Norquist is ATR’s founder, leader, frontman, heart, and soul. He appears on television, speaks at conservative events, and hounds lawmakers over the phone if they seem like they’re waffling on the pledge. ATR’s website claims that Norquist founded the organization in 1985 “at the request of President Reagan,” but this overstates Reagan’s relationship with Norquist. The New Republic explains that “the Reagan White House put future attorney general Bill Barr in charge of creating the lobby group, and [then] Barr’s law associate Peter Ferrara, a friend of Norquist’s from Harvard, recruited Norquist, who happened to be available because he’d recently been fired by a different conservative lobby group…” Despite this, Norquist has become so central to Americans for Tax Reform that it is impossible to discuss the latter without considering the former.
Norquist is a political animal. As a Mother Jones profile details, “It’s hard to imagine what would be left if you took the politics out of him.” Similarly, Stephen Moore, president of Club for Growth, said of him, “From the moment he gets up to the moment he gets to bed, he thinks, ‘How am I going to hurt the other team?’… One time I was telling Grover about this woman I met. Most guys would say, ‘Oh, is she really good-looking?’ or something like that. Grover said, ‘Is she good on guns?’”
His love of politics began early; he recalls arguing about the Vietnam War and reading J. Edgar Hoover books about the communist threat as middle school student. At 12, he volunteered for Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. According to the New York Times, it was while working on that campaign that he conceived the no-new-taxes promise.
He parlayed his passion into running the national organization of the College Republicans from 1981 through 1983. Throughout the early 80s, the anti-apartheid movement was sweeping across college campuses as students protested the racial discrimination of South Africa and urged the Reagan administration to “divest” from the country. As a result, according to the Nation, “the South African government and large South African companies hired a slew of young, conservative political operatives. Republicans embraced the cause fervently.” Among those young Republicans were Norquist, disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Sen. Jeff Flake, who “launched their careers in the anti-divestment campaign, seeking to keep trade open with apartheid South Africa.” In that mission, Norquist visited South Africa in 1985 for a “Youth for Freedom Conference,” which focused on bringing “American and South African conservatives together to end [the anti-apartheid] movement.”
The next year, Ronald Reagan needed some outside help pushing for his tax reform package, and ATR was born. According to the New Republic, Norquist initially showed little interest in his role at ATR and “instead [spent]much of his time traveling to Africa to pay homage to the Angola rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and other ‘freedom fighters’ then lionized by the right for their presumed opposition to socialism.” His “think-tank-sponsored forays… to organize anti-communist rebels” also took him to Afghanistan and Mozambique, where he would pose with heavy artillery. When he returned to focus on domestic taxes, it was with an “I’d rather be killing commies” bumper sticker on his briefcase. Once Reagan’s tax reform bill – which actually would have violated the ATR pledge – passed, Norquist began his ideological war on taxes by implementing the pledge. He has been incredibly successful; from 1991 through 2011, not a single Republican voted for a major federal tax increase.
Although Norquist is devoted to “his team” – Republicans – and his fiercely partisan, once telling a reporter that “Bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” George H.W. Bush’s re-election defeat gave him an opportunity to position himself as a leader of the conservative movement. Many argued that Bush’s defeat was due to his reneging on his own “no new taxes” promise. As the New Republic details, “Republicans took away from the 1992 election the simplistic lesson that they must never, ever, raise taxes—something they hadn’t been particularly inclined to do, of course, in the first place. This absolutist new orthodoxy allowed Norquist to position himself as the high priest of the antitax movement.”
After assisting Newt Gingrich with the crafting of the Contract With America, Norquist’s influence expanded even more under the Bush Administration. Peter Ferrara, the man who tapped him for the ATR job originally, told Mother Jones in 2004 that “When the White House sits down and says ‘We want to get the word out on something,’ the top of the list is Grover.” Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, agreed, saying, “If the American people really want to know what George W. Bush is up to, the best place to look is the candor of Grover Norquist.” A New York Times columnist has written that “Someday someone will write a dark history – a farce, really – of how he managed to bring nearly all of the Republican Party to heel, compelling legislator upon legislator to lash themselves to his no-new-taxes pledge.”
Part of the reason for that influence has been the infamous “Wednesday Meetings” at ATR’s headquarters, weekly gatherings where influential conservative leaders establish common priorities and coordinate to advance the conservative movement. A 2004 Mother Jones profile described the meetings as attended by “the powers who run the federal government – congressmen, lobbyists, senior White House and Senate staffers, industry-group leaders, and right-wing policy wonks.” At the meetings, “the focus is on winning. Here, strategy is honed. Talking points are refined. Discipline is imposed.” Ralph Nader described the room’s atmosphere as so cold-blooded “it would sustain icicles.”
Nader went on to describe the anti-tax organization as “the most powerful, nihilistic movement in Washington.” And Matt Yglesias has suggested that Norquist is “the most powerful force blocking spending cuts and tax reform,” arguing that, because Norquist refuses to allow closing tax loopholes if they raise revenue, “the tax code stays inefficient and the spending level stays high, all so the members of the True Faith can be unsullied in the purity of their complaints about the inefficiency of the tax code and the high level of spending.” Norquist acknowledges the drawback to his demanded purity, as the Washington Post reports: “Under the pledge, raising revenue in any way requires an equal tax cut elsewhere to avoid expanding the size of government. And, yes, that sometimes means protecting tax breaks that Republicans view as bad public policy, Norquist and his supporters say.” This contradiction led Mother Jones to call Norquist “Big Government’s Biggest Friend.”
Although Norquist achieved significant success, some have argued that he has more recently become a victim of that success. His considerable sway within the second Bush administration helped pave the way for tax cuts and declining revenue, but didn’t decrease government spending. The result was expanding deficits and rising government debt, which paved the way for the rise of the Tea Party and for budgeting showdowns which did considerable damage to Norquist’s brand. The damage started in 2011, which Norquist feuded with former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, whom President Obama had named to co-chair his deficit-reduction commission. The Colorado Statesman detailed, “Simpson said he confronted anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist when the commission met and they exchanged words over the legacy of Ronald Reagan, claimed by both as their personal hero. When Reagan was president, he raised taxes 11 times, Simpson said, a bit of history that made Norquist squirm.”
The New York Times asked in November 2012 if “Grover [was] Finally Over?” Senators Lindsey Graham, Bob Corker, and John McCain, among others, were quoted as denouncing or otherwise walking back from their commitment to never increasing revenue. As the Times author noted, “It’s as if some spell has at long last been broken, and the formerly bewitched villagers are rising up to defy their evil overlord and insist on the possibility of life and even mirth without a deduction for corporate jets.”
Several other Republicans broke away from the pledge after President Obama’s 2012 re-election. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said, “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge… If we do it [Norquist’s] way, then we’ll continue in debt.” When Sen. Tom Coburn agreed, Norquist compared him to convicted traitor Alger Hiss. Despite Norquist’s supposed stranglehold on Republicans, the American Taxpayer Relief Act was signed into law by President Obama on January 1, 2013, and featured several revenue-increasing measures. A majority of House Republicans opposed it, but enough broke away for the bill to pass.
Norquist serves on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association and is a contributing editor to American Spectator magazine. He’s written three books, including “Leave Us Alone – Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives.”