In Budget Battle, Brown Locks Horns With the Big Daddy of Tax-Cutting: Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
While the name Grover Norquist may be obscure to some, sounding a little like the lead Groucho character in a Marx Bros. film, perhaps, Grover Norquist the man is a highly potent force in American politics.

To those in the know on the American Right, he’s a hero. But to the Left, he cuts something of a Rasputin-like figure, a low-profile architect of what Democrats would consider a near-mania among Republicans for tax-cutting — a quest perhaps most starkly expressed in the concept of “Starve the beast.” That’s the political-fiscal strategy of slashing taxes in order to create budget deficits great enough to preclude robust government services.

“My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” Norquist famously — or notoriously, depending on your economic school of thought — has said.

From a Mother Jones profile, written during the height of the Bush years:

The invitation-only meetings Norquist hosts have become a hot ticket for Washington’s conservative in crowd…The 100-plus people who come each week are the powers who run the federal government—congressmen, lobbyists, senior White House and Senate staffers, industry-group leaders, and right-wing policy wonks…

Norquist calls it the “Leave-Us-Alone Coalition,” a grouping of gun owners, the Christian right, homeschoolers, libertarians, and business leaders that he has almost single-handedly managed to unite. The common vision: an America in which the rich will be taxed at the same rates as the poor, where capital is freed from government constraints, where government services are turned over to the free market, where the minimum wage is repealed, unions are made irrelevant, and law-abiding citizens can pack handguns in every state and town. “My ideal citizen is the self-employed, homeschooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit,” says Norquist. “Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything.”

Few in American politics are as blunt about their plans…Norquist is not above equating tax collection with a street mugging, or suggesting that arguments for higher taxes on rich people echo the ones Nazis used to justify their targeting of Jews…

These are not the musings of an ideological fringe. Norquist has already secured written promises never to raise taxes from a majority of federally elected Republicans: 217 House members, 42 senators, and the sitting president of the United States. In 36 state capitals across the country, he is organizing weekly meetings modeled on his Washington coalition, and more than 1,200 state legislators and 10 governors have taken his anti-tax pledge.

And that’s where Jerry Brown comes in. The governor has proposed closing California’s Golden-Bear-sized budget deficit with a combination of spending cuts and tax extensions. But he needs some votes from Republicans to get it done, and almost all of those have signed Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

“The Pledge commits an elected official or candidate for public office “to oppose [and vote against/veto] any efforts to increase taxes,” says a fact sheet from Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform.

But what about in a dire situation such as California finds itself in now? Any leeway there?

“There are no exceptions to the Pledge. Tax-and-spend politicians often use “emergencies” to justify increasing taxes. In the unfortunate event of a real crisis or natural disaster, legislators should cut spending in other areas instead of aggravating the situation. In the face of natural disasters, governors like Haley Barbour or Jeb Bush have demonstrated such fiscal leadership and have worked through the problem without raising taxes.”

Jerry Brown, however, argues that he isn’t calling for a tax extension, per se, just an election for voters to decide between taxes or even greater budget cuts.

On Jan 6, Norquist wrote to GOP legislators about Brown’s gambit:

Dear California Pledge Signers,

I write today in strong opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to send billions of dollars in additional job-killing tax increases to the ballot this year. Raising California’s tax burden will not fix the state’s problem, which is out of control government spending. Voting to send tax increases to the ballot would violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written commitment that you made to your constituents to “oppose any and all efforts to raise taxes…” (Emphasis added)

Norquist followed that with this Jan 12 commentary on FlashReport, driving home the point that even allowing a vote on taxes would violate the pledge, and defending his organization against charges that this position is undemocratic.

There is nothing subjective about the determination that voting to refer higher taxes to the ballot is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. A vote to put tax hikes on the ballot is clearly and indisputably a failure to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to raise taxes.”

1) There is nothing subjective about the determination that voting to refer higher taxes to the ballot is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. A vote to put tax hikes on the ballot is clearly and indisputably a failure to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to raise taxes.”

2) Critics wrongly contend that California legislators who signed the Pledge have vowed allegiance to some single person or organization. A quick read of the simple language of the Pledge proves such allegations to be false. In fact, those who deride Pledge signers have a chicken-and-egg problem. Pledge signers are not opposed to raising taxes or referring higher taxes to the ballot simply because they signed the Pledge; the fact is that they signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge because they recognize that imposing more job-killing tax increases in one of the most onerously taxed jurisdictions on the planet is not a solution to California’s overspending problem.

3) Critics say that ATR, in opposing a legislative referral of tax increases, is scuttling the Democratic process and preventing voters from having a say. Far from it. If Jerry Brown, the Sacramento Bee, Darrel Steinberg, et al. are dead set on putting higher taxes on the ballot – fine – go get the signatures needed to put it on the ballot. But don’t force lawmakers to do your dirty work and break a sacred campaign promise to voters in the process – a promise that was made just a few short months ago for many of the newest members of the legislature.

On Feb 25, at his appearance before the Budget Conference Committee, Brown criticized Republican instransigence on the election idea, and took on the pledge directly. (See this video.) Brown said:

(Joking) Any Republican who wants a dispensation (from the pledge) they should come down to my office and we’re gonna work up a little process that you can apply to.

But by the way, this doesn’t violate any no-tax pledge. In fact, if I can give you a little political advice, you should be voting for this and then join the campaign against it. Go out to the people. Because this is a choice. The people do get to make a choice. They can vote yes, they can vote no. And if they’re gonna vote yes, they’re gonna avoid some cuts and extend some taxes. If they vote no, then they’re gonna vote for 25 billion in cuts… But it doesn’t violate a pledge…

The anti-tax brigade didn’t buy it. From An Open Memo To GOP Legislators Concerning The Issue Of Governor Brown’s Proposal To Raise Taxes by Flashpoint’s Jon Fleischman:

I have heard some say that a few Republicans can vote to put the taxes on the ballot, but then they (and the rest of us Republicans along for the ride) can just then oppose those taxes on the ballot. Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association appeared on the Eric Hogue radio show yesterday, where he said that it lacks credibility to say voting to place a tax increase on the ballot is substantively different than supporting the passage of the taxes. I agree with him 100%. For exaggerated emphasis, Coupal made the point that if a legislator voted to put a measure legalizing heroin use on the ballot, that it would fly in the face of common sense to not conclude that the legislator who cast that vote wanted to see heroin use legal in California. It is also significant to note that a key messaging component for the campaign to pass the tax increases would be to emphasize the bipartisan vote to place the taxes on the ballot. I guarantee you that the unions will make the four Republican legislators who voted to place the taxes onto the ballot into “stars” with direct mail into Republican voting households.

Here’s a report from ABC highlighting Norquist’s threat to punish any legislator who dares break the pledge. The piece includes a shot at Norquist from Democrat Mark Leno: “You voters will not speak. I Grover Norquist will decide this for you,” Leno says.

Last week, Carla Marinucci of the San Francisco Chronicle spoke to Norquist about the burgeoning battle between him and Brown:

Asked to comment on Brown’s recent statement that — as a former Jesuit seminarian — he knows sometimes vows must be broken, Norquist was positively scathing.

“What kind of argument is that? “I lied, so other people can lie?” Norquist said. “If you break your views as a Jesuit, you leave the priesthood. So it’s possible for a politician to say, “I got elected promising not to raise taxes,” and then decide to change their mind. But they should resign if they do that,” he said.

Norquist, the ATR head, was especially fired up when reminded of Brown’s references to democratic movements in Egypt and Tunisia in calling for the special election which the governor argues would allow California voters to decide on $12 billion in cuts and $14 billion in tax extensions to rescue the state from $26 billion in red ink.

Norquist called Brown’s rationale — and comparisons to the Middle Eastern movements — “pathetic.”

“Those people are putting their lives on the line…the nerve of him,” he said. “It’s sick.”

A few days later, Marinucci caught Brown in a press gaggle, and pressed him for a response:

At which point Norquist tweeted that Brown was channeling segregationist Senator George Wallace.

And on it goes. Yesterday, GOP Party head Ron Nehring called for Brown to debate Norquist. A spokesman for Democratic State Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg then said that request showed that Norquist is now the de facto head of the California GOP. California Democratic Party Chair John Burton also headed into the fray, in typical four-letter fashion.

The spiraling brouhaha perhaps hit a nadir when Brown’s spokesman finally did offer Brown as a debate partner — Sutter Brown, that is, the governor’s dog.

For Californians growing weary of all the posturing, here’s one hope: Norquist has his hand in the budget debates of so many other states, maybe he’ll tire of the one in California at least enough for the public bickering to end.

But I wouldn’t count on it…

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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