Since 1986, conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has strong armed GOP candidates running for federal or statewide elections to put into writing a pledge to not raise taxes. 279 lawmakers signed the pledge to not raise rates or eliminate deductions going into the election this year. Norquist has possessed considerable clout within the party, considering he is not an elected officeholder, with his threats to drive Republicans who refuse to take the pledge out of office.
In light of the looming fiscal cliff however, some senior party members have begun distancing themselves from Norquist and the pledge, perhaps taking a hint from the recent CNN/ORC poll finding 45% of Americans would blame congressional Republicans-as opposed to 34% who would fault the President-if Washington fails to reach a deal.
Republican Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee, who was just reelected this cycle for his second term, publicly renounced his obligation to the pledge, even though he signed it both as a member of the 112th Congress, and the 113th, which formally convenes in January of next year, according to Americans for Tax Reform. In both an appearance on CBS’s “This Morning” and in an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Senator Corker made clear his obligation to honor only the oath he will take in January when sworn into office. His op-ed includes his own bill that promises to produce $45 trillion in fiscal reforms by capping deductions, increased premiums for higher income retirees, among other suggestions.
Other influential Republican leaders have made similar comments disassociating themselves from Norquist. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that the pledge is not something voters care about, alluding to a recurring theme of Norquist influence only on the Beltway, but not further beyond. Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss argues that addressing the current $16 trillion debt is far more important than an antiquated pledge. Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina took a more measured stance, agreeing that rates should not be raised, but arguing greater flexibility in measures such as capping deductions are necessary to combat the deficit.
Senator Corker and Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill appeared together on Meet the Press to express confidence that the Democratic-controlled Senate could reach a deal. They took further shots at Norquist, with McCaskill questioning why one man had captured the nation’s attention. Norquist, however, has appeared unfazed. He claimed Corker was “seduced” into believing that a small tax increase could lead to substantial reform, maintained that Graham has long been skeptical, and that the stability of Chambliss’ seat allows him to be more vocal.
Attempts by Republicans to rebuke Grover Norquist are unsurprising, as he seems to accurately represent the inflexible, and somewhat anachronistic, version of the Republican Party that failed to capture the White House last month. Mitt Romney’s promises of fiscal responsibility and economic reform did not resonate enough with voters to deny President Obama a second term, and given a majority of voters’ willingness to attribute blame to Republicans if fiscal talks fall through, indicating that some alterations may need to be considered. At the same time, however, these are symbolic measures rather than indications of systemic changes in the party platform. While perhaps the biggest to challenge to Norquist’s continuing influence on the Hill come from Majority Leader Cantor’s comments, they are somewhat untrue. The reason Norquist has maintained such power over the last quarter of a century, and the reason that practically every Republican signs his pledge cycle after cycle, is because such a commitment finds resonance with voters. They are perhaps unfamiliar with who Norquist is, or even the existence of a formal pledge, but a simple promise by a candidate to not raise taxes has long proved popular, virtually ensuring the Grover Norquist’s influence in DC for the foreseeable future.