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Grover Norquist's Real Game: Shifting Power and Wealth to the One Percent

Thursday, 22 December 2011 10:32 By Donald Cohen and Peter Dreier, Truthout | News Analysis
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Grover Norquist is fast becoming the man everyone loves to hate –  except  those who  fear him.  Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, is both the architect and enforcer of the Republican Party’s  obsessive opposition  to all  taxes – an obsession that threatens to drive America off a fiscal cliff.  

Every Republican running for president (except John Huntsman) has signed Norquist’s no-tax pledge.  So have 13 governors, 1,300 state legislators,  40 of the 47 Republicans in the Senate, and 236 of the 242 Republicans in the House. 

Politicians who refuse to sign Norquist’s pledge – or who violate it after getting elected by voting for tax increases --  risk  facing his wrath in the next election. To avoid getting branded as pro-tax, they sign.  Few candidates have wanted to appear “soft” on taxes since Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale in 1984  after the Democrat said that, if elected,  he’d raise taxes.  

Norquist refuses to identify his donors, but, clearly his anti-tax  small-government rhetoric is  just a clever cover story to help his corporate benefactors.  Last year Norquist supported the Republicans’ plan  to extend the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy and to cut payroll taxes,  which President Obama reluctantly agreed to. Norquist still embraces tax cuts for the rich.  At a recent meeting with GOP lawmakers, Norquist said that  permitting the expiration of the Bush temporary tax cuts on the wealthy would  violate the no new taxes pledge.  But, he said, allowing this year’s payroll tax cut to expire wouldn’t breach the no tax dogma.,    

Apparently, Norquist’s no-tax pledge doesn’t apply when it’s a tax on middle class families.  In 2011, the payroll tax cut put $120 billion into the hands of millions of middle and working class Americans.    

In 2011, the richest one percent of Americans will get an average  tax break of $66,384, thanks to the Bush cuts. That’s larger than the the average income of the other 99 percent -- $58,506.   

Norquist’s real agenda is obvious.  Speaking for his corporate funders, he brands ending tax cuts for the rich as an outrageous tax increase while claiming extending payroll tax relief for working families is typical Democratic fiscal irresponsibility.   

Norquist claims  that he is committed to  smaller government. He once famously said that he wanted to reduce the size of government to the point that he could drown it in a bathtub.   But his hypocrisy on extending tax cuts – OK for the rich but not for average working families --  reveals Norquist’s true colors.  He’s a front man for the 1%.

How did Norquist become the Machiavelli for the mega-rich?  After earning his MBA at Harvard, Norquist served as executive director of both the National Taxpayers Union and the College Republicans, then went to work as a speechwriter at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  In 1985, Donald Regan – the former CEO of Merrill Lynch before becoming.   Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff – plucked Norquist out of the Chamber and installed him as head of Americans for Tax Reform.,  

Since then, Norquist’s real mission has been government that serves corporate America. He’s supported government subsidies for ethanol and has lobbied on behalf of Microsoft, Seagrams and the gambling industry.  

As the head of Americans for Tax Reform he shilled for the tobacco industry. In 1993, tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds worried that taxes on tobacco products might be included as a source of funding for health care reform. Norquist was an experienced warrior against taxes and had a network of state-level contacts that could be mobilized.  The tobacco firms gave grants to ATR’s educational arm and made payments for ATR’s lobbying services.   It was a marriage of convenience and opportunity for both and another example of Norquists’s real agenda behind his no-tax pledge:    Shift more wealth and power to the already wealthy and powerful.

Norquist also proved useful to the tobacco industry when he held press conferences, wrote op-ed pieces and lobbied against cigarette tax increases in a number of states seeking new revenues to fund health programs for children, including Maine, New Jersey, Alaska, and New Hampshire. He fronted for the tobacco lobby in its opposition to lawsuits seeking damages from states who spent billions of dollars in health care expenses treating the illnesses suffered by long-term smokers.    

In 2001, as George W. Bush was coming into the White House, Norquist penned an article in the right-wing American Spectator that outlined a Bush Administration strategy to create a permanent conservative Republican majority.  His goal was, and is, to relegate the Democratic Party to minority status to head off progressive taxes and regulations on business that upset his corporate clients. 

Norquist’s article laid out a straightforward five point battle plan.  Today, flush with cash, Republican elected officials are aggressively targeting Norquist’s “five pillars” of the Democratic party’s support. 

  • Unions 

This year’s campaigns against public sector worker in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana are the merely latest chapter in concerted campaigns to shrink unions and limit their participation in politics. Conservative legislators and governors have proposed “right to work” measures, so-called “paycheck protection” measures that would make it harder for unions to represent workers in politics and privatization schemes designed to break unions while slashing wages and benefits.

  • Trial lawyers  

Business interests, under the benign sounding banner of “tort reform,” have been trying to limit corporate liability for decades.  (The new documentary film, “Hot Coffee,” describes the business/Republican assault in great detail).  The Bush presidency made it a centerpiece of his agenda.  In 2005, George W. Bush signed a law moving class action suits from state courts to federal courts where fewer classes would be certified.  The Bush Administration also regularly inserted pre-emption language into federal rulemaking at the FDA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Homeland security.  For example, a 2006 FDA rule shifted on prescription labeling preempted state laws and helped Merck that was fighting thousands of lawsuits by consumers harmed by the arthritis drug Vioxx that was recalled in 2004 after it was linked to increased heart attacks and strokes.  Similar preemptions were slipped into regulations covering mattress flammability, sunscreen labeling, and auto safety standards. 

  • Voter registration groups 

GOP-controlled state legislatures are passing laws to restrict the right for Democratic-leaning constituencies – the poor, minorities, young people, and immigrant citizens, and targeting groups like ACORN that register low-income voters.  Dozens of laws have been proposed that restrict early voting days to make it more difficult for working people who aren’t given time off to vote on Tuesdays;  reduce the number of college students that can vote by making it impossible for parents to claim their child as a dependent on their taxes if they register to vote while away at school; and require onerous identification cards for voters that will make it more difficult for seniors and others lacking drivers licenses or their birth certificates. 

  • Progressive organizations receiving federal funding 

Efforts to defund non-profit organizations that receive federal funding to serve low income people began during the Reagan administration.   In the last decade, the GOP has targeted funding for Planned Parenthood,  NPR, and  environmental groups such as the Defenders of Wildlife that receive federal grants and reimbursement of legal fees for non-profits that successfully sue the federal government for failure to enforce existing law.

  • “Big City” mayors  

Since the New Deal, Washington has sent job-creating funds – for housing, infrastructure, social services, and economic development and other goals – to urban areas, but when Reagan took office he began slashing these programs that primarily benefit low-income and minority populations, who tend to vote for Democrats. George W. Bush worked to finish the job started by Reagan.  He proposed completely defunding the Community Development Block Grant (CDGB).  He failed to eliminate the program but slashed the budget by over $1 billion during his second term.  Norquist viewed this as money to help Democratic mayors gain support among their urban constituencies, who could then be mobilized to vote for Democratic candidates for President and Congress. 

Norquists’s plan has begun to hit roadbumps.  Voters have opposed the attacks on the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers. In November, Ohio voters soundly rejected Governor’s Kasich’s law restricting union rights. Wisconsin residents recalled two state legislators and are signing petitions by the thousands to recall Governor Scott Walker.   Republicans’ attempts to defund Planned Parenthood’s family planning clinics failed.  In fact, the organization, the nation’s largest provider of women’s health services, has been gaining new members and supporters. 

American’s are even tiring of dogmatic no-new taxes pledges that only really apply to taxes on the wealthy. Voters in every poll show that the public wants a balanced approach to the public budget deficits – cuts and revenues.  They want to see the end of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy that cut a trillion dollar hole in the federal budget since 2001.  

And Norquists’s threats to destroy the careers of  elected officials who support new taxes  are now attracting enemies with the GOP’s  own ranks.  Allen Simpson, the former Senator from Wyoming, recently said that Norquist is an “egomaniac” with an agenda of  “no taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell.” Even the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that  Norquist  “enforces rigid ultimatums that make governance, or even thinking, impossible.”

Last month, seven Republican House members who had signed Norquist’s pledge announced that their commitment has expired. They reminded their supporters that  Republicans once put country over party and ideology, and  supported tax increases  when absolutely necessary. Norquists’ no-tax pledge may very well take American off a fiscal and economic cliff.   Will his  corporate sponsors eventually  wake up and realize that their own futures are intertwined with the fate of the entire country? 

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).

Donald Cohen

Donald Cohen is the chairperson of In the Public Interest, a new resource center on privatization and government contracting.


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