As talk in Washington heats up over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” much of the focus has begun to centre on a man who will never enter into any of the actual negotiations.
Grover Norquist, the man behind the GOP’s famous anti-tax pledge, is one of the most influential voices within conservative circles. The rest of America become rather obsessed with him this last week, as Republicans begin to distance themselves from the two decades-old pledge that, once signed, binds lawmakers to a promise that they will never raise taxes.
The pledge has been signed by all but 16 of the incoming Republican members of the House of Representatives — and all but 12 of Republicans currently in Congress.
The key component of Republicans’ willingness to compromise in any deal, however, includes capping deductions and/or closing loopholes in the tax code — two moves that would violate Norquist’s pledge. That has led many Republican heavyweights to begin wavering on the pledge.
Norquist has pushed back this week with a series of television appearances, saying that Republicans will have to answer to constituents — not him — if they break the pledge.
But how did Norquist come to hold this much power without ever taking office? Here we look at his complicated path to prominence.
Warren Norquist, Grover's father and a former vice president at Polaroid, told Business Insider that when Grover was in kindergarten, he fretted about being in top of his class.
One day, Warren said he noticed his son 'thinking especially hard.' He asked him what he was thinking about.
'I don't think I'm in the top reading group,' Warren recalls his son saying, 'and I'm figuring out how to get there.'
'He has always taken life very seriously,' Warren said.
Warren had an unusual method that readied his son for a life of public speaking.
Shortly after each of his four kids entered school, Warren said he would have them each pick out a topic in the encyclopedia and write a one-minute speech about it. He would make them practice it 15 times -- or until they realised how much better the last time was then the first.
Then Warren moved onto other steps. He had them hold a spoon, which was a prop for a microphone. He taught them how to stand and how to make eye contact with members of the audience.
'Then they knew they could give a real good speech,' he said.
Norquist graduated from Harvard in 1978, and earned an MBA from the school in 1981. Two years later, he was already the chief speechwriter at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- after stints as the executive director of both the National Taxpayers Union and the College Republicans.
After one event at the Chamber of Commerce, his father asked Grover what he liked about his job.
'I wrote all 15 speeches,' Warren Norquist recalls his son saying. 'I got all of my views in there, somewhere.'
Norquist took a brief detour from his routine as an anti-tax crusader to travel to different overseas war zones in the 1980s and support anti-Soviet guerrilla armies.
The Nation included this in its 2001 profile of Norquist:
Norquist promoted US support for groups like Mozambique's RENAMO and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in Angola, both of which were backed by South Africa's apartheid regime.
Carol Norquist said that her son took 13 trips to Africa. Some of them were rather intense. During one trip to Angola, he organised a meeting between a handful of guerrilla groups.
Here's how Warren Norquist described one of the trips, during which Norquist would be flown in by planes of the guerrilla groups '150 feet off the ground':
'The last time he flew in was by Russian pilots. The plane they built was larger than the C-5A -- they had made it six inches bigger. The Soviet Union was disbanding at the time. These were pilots that went to Africa to work, and they rented the plane from Russia. They flew him into the guerrilla base. He was the only one on the plane -- the only other things on the plane were litres of gasoline.
'He used to run some real risks. One of their planes had crashed the weeks before into a city, and it had caused a lot of deaths because of the amount of gasoline on the plane. But that's Grover.'
Norquist has become powerful in conservative and Republican circles for a number of reasons for the past two decades. In 1994, he co-authored the 'Contract for America' with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and was a key part of George W. Bush's outreach to the more conservative members of the Republican Party.
The Nation wrote
In November 1998, immediately after Bush was re-elected as Texas governor and began eyeing the White House, Norquist traveled to Austin to meet Bush and Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, whom Norquist has known for two decades. Norquist came away convinced that Bush, if not an authentic conservative, was at least the right's best hope. On five issues, he says--tax cuts, school choice, tort reform, pension reform and paycheck protection--Bush said the right things, and that was enough for Norquist. At the time, for most conservatives Bush was an unknown quantity, and his closeness to his father (whom Norquist excoriated in his book for faithlessness and errors of political judgment) made the right queasy. Others in the race, like Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, all had appeal to the far right--but Norquist, upon returning to Washington, started spreading the word that the right ought to line up behind Bush.
According to several sources, Norquist's support was decisive in swinging the bulk of the conservative movement into Bush's camp by early 1999. 'It's not disputable,' says Fund of the Wall Street Journal. Then, when Bush ran into trouble battling Senator John McCain of Arizona, Norquist mobilized the right against McCain in the early primaries, especially in South Carolina--and, in the process, cemented his ties to Bush and Rove.
In 1993, Norquist and ATR started to hold weekly meetings that became the organisation's signature event. Warren Norquist has attended a few of these meetings, which happen every week unless they fall on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or New Year's Eve or Day.
The meetings run from 10 a.m. to 11:30 every week. Each conservative group that attends is allotted a three-minute speaking time. Prominent groups like the NRA, GOProud, the Heritage Foundation, and many others often attend. They usually average about 30 people per week, but get up to around 110.
'And you're not allowed to whine or complain about the other side,' Warren said. 'Or about the other organisations. The emphasis is always on what action your group is taking right now.'
Norquist gained more national attention in 2010, when the Tea Party movement started to gain traction. But he really pops up on the national radar every time raising taxes is brought up as a solution to something -- like the debt-ceiling negotiations in 2011 and, now, the fiscal-cliff talks.
Take a look at the Google Trends search over time:
The '60 Minutes' interview was arguably Norquist's most high-profile appearance, and contributed to his reputation as the force behind Republican aversion to raising revenue.
Here's a particularly biting exchange:
Kroft: But you make it pretty clear. If someone breaks the pledge, you're gonna do everything you can to get rid of them.
Norquist: To educate the voters that they raise taxes. And again, we educate people--
Kroft: To get rid of them.
Norquist: To encourage them to go into another line of work, like shoplifting or bank robbing, where they have to do their own stealing.
Kroft: You've got them by the shorthairs.
Norquist: The voters do. Yeah.
Kroft: And they have to march in lockstep with Grover Norquist?
Norquist: With the taxpayers of their state. I applaud from the sidelines. I go, 'Very good.' Yes, yes.
Norquist and ATR came under increased scrutiny in 2006, when the Washington Post reported that the organisation had helped funnel money for controversial Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
From the Post:
Among the organisations used by Abramoff was Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. According to an investigative report on Abramoff's lobbying released last week by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, 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 organisation kept a small cut, e-mails show.
Abramoff, of course, pleaded guilty in 2006 to three felony counts of defrauding clients, most prominently Native American tribes. He also was accused of illegally providing representatives with money and gifts for their votes in legislation.
Norquist has denied any wrongdoing and has never been implicated or charged.
In the past week, a number of prominent Republican lawmakers are renouncing Norquist's pledge, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and Rep. Peter King.
At the heart of the Republican breakaway is the difference in philosophy between these Republicans and Norquist. The key Republican compromise for a fiscal cliff deal centres on a plan to raise revenue by eliminating deductions and closing loopholes. Under Norquist's rules in the pledge, this counts as a tax increase. But it appears that Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, are prepared to make these concessions.
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