Ayatollah of low taxes whose fatwas are feared
INTERVIEW:GROVER NORQUIST has never been elected to public office. He has not amassed a huge fortune. His power is the power of an idea: that government must be shrunk “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”; that all tax increases are bad.
A profound aversion to taxation is perhaps the only issue that unites the entire Republican party. The ayatollah of low taxation, a compact 55-year-old with water-blue eyes, a stubble beard and an elegant suit, met a group called Reforming America’s Taxes Equitably yesterday, on the 14th floor of a hotel with panoramic views over Tampa Bay.
“The federal government acts like a Las Vegas casino,” Norquist says. “It just creams off a bigger portion of the take ... We can’t act like the American economy is an ATM for the government.”
For 26 years, Norquist has been persuading – some might say terrorising – Republican politicians into signing a pledge never to raise taxes.
George Herbert Walker Bush took “the pledge” during the 1988 Republican primaries, famously saying, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Four years later, after successfully managing the fall of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Iraq war, he was trounced at the polls – Norquist’s first scalp.
“He raised taxes,” Norquist recounts with relish. “Every other Republican saw an American president throw away a perfectly good presidency by breaking his word on taxes.”
The American right, particularly the Tea Party, has been permeated by Norquist’s ideology. “If you have lower taxes, you have more control over how you spend your resources,” he explains. “You have more freedom. And the government only has legitimate power to expropriate wealth and income from people to do things that are in the Constitution.”
How low is low enough? “There’s not some fixed number,” Norquist says. “The Bible says 10 per cent. I’m not sure that government should get more than God ... less than 10 per cent, because it would be a little outrageous for the government to demand more.”
Today, 238 members of the House of Representatives have signed the pledge. “That’s 20 more than a majority,” Norquist notes. “So we have a solid majority of the members of the House, and 41 senators. At the state level, we have 13 governors and 1,300 state legislators.”
Mitt Romney took the pledge in 2008 and renewed it this year. When Obama recently predicted that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class, Norquist recounts, “Romney reiterated: ‘I’m not raising taxes. I made a written commitment to the American people that I’m not going to.’ He actually referenced the pledge.”
There can be no absolution for pledge-breakers. “There are guys who on principle are not going to raise taxes,” Norquist says. “And there are guys who have weak moments of pressure from the spending interests ... I get people once in a while saying, ‘Well, Grover, since you wrote the pledge, couldn’t you give people a pass on it?’ See, the pledge isn’t to me. It’s to the American people. I can’t help you break your commitment. I can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s okay.’ It’s not okay!”
The harrowing brinkmanship of the summer of 2011, when the US had its credit rating downgraded and came to the verge of default, was the result of Norquist’s iron grip on lawmakers. The US again faces a “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year, and Norquist may tell them to jump rather than strike a compromise with President Obama.
Norquist displays a certain (false?) modesty over the power he wields. “The tax issue is the most powerful issue in governance; that’s what I think people mean to say,” he comments.
He evokes history to prove that tax is the enemy of growth. “The original Tea Party, the revolt against Britain’s tax policies in the colonies, was a tax revolt,” Norquist says. “In colonial times, Americans were taxed between 1 and 2 per cent. The British had a really cool empire, lots of pretty ships, and they paid 20 per cent. Want to run an empire? Twenty per cent. Want to not run an empire? One to 2 per cent. We had strong growth. We displaced Britain both as an economic power, as a per capita income power, with a low tax strategy.”
In the 1860s, the Civil War was partly sparked by tariffs that hurt the non-industrialised south more than the industrialised north, Norquist continues. “So taxes have been a powerful issue throughout our history and continue to be today.”
Norquist is fuming over an article by MIT professor Andrea Louise Campbell in the current issue of Foreign Affairs which points out that the US ranks 32nd of 34 industrialised countries in terms of tax revenue as a percentage of GDP.
He calls Campbell’s contention that the US should raise – not lower – taxes “the Brezhnev doctrine of state spending and taxes: ‘Everything you have is ours, and it can only go up.’”
Campbell “posits the Left’s new bogeyman, which is income inequality,” Norquist continues.
“The Left used to say they were concerned about poverty. Why? So they could steal your money and give it to themselves and share some of it with poor people and say they were helping poverty. Well, after 50 years of not helping poor people and spending a lot of money on themselves, they had nothing to show for it. That doesn’t pass the laugh test any more.”
Much of Norquist’s rhetoric has been adopted by the Romney campaign; his comparison of economic recoveries under his former mentor Ronald Reagan and Obama, and scorn for the 2009 Recovery Act.
“Taking $800 billion from the American people, throwing it up in the air and pretending it’s a stimulus is not written in the constitution ... It doesn’t even work,” he says.
Norquist calls the Republican convention “a target-rich environment to meet with people and get stuff done.”
His group, Americans For Tax Reform, brings together some 3,000 people in 65 chapters across the country on a weekly basis. All have come to Tampa to share the anti-tax gospel, “so everybody knows what everybody else is doing”.