Commentary: Budget deficit, debt debate controlled by Grover Norquist

Kansas City StarJuly 11, 2011 

For all the homage paid to Grover Norquist in Washington, you'd think we'd elected him to some high office.

Deficit hawk Alan Simpson says he's one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of reducing our massive debt. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says GOP lawmakers are "terrified" of the guy.

He's credited — or blamed — with thwarting attempts to reduce the deficit and raise the debt ceiling.

That's a lot of power to confer on a man who should have been consigned to the political dustbin, if not to a courtroom, five years ago.

Norquist, former executive director of the College Republican National Committee, promotes the poisonous notion that government is inherently bad and should exist only to enrich the rich and empower the powerful.

Give him credit, he's good at what he does. A master of the essential Washington arts of bullying, schmoozing and messaging, he's branded himself as a power broker. Republicans, in particular, can't contemplate raising revenues — even by revoking an outdated subsidy or tax credit — without risking his wrath.

But if Washington gave a hoot about ethics, Norquist would have been run out of town in 2006, when his old pal from the College Republican group, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. The Norquist express was chugging along at that time. Everyone who was anyone in GOP circles attended Norquist's weekly meetings to receive their marching orders.

But the federal probe into Abramoff's activities revealed that the man who professed to disdain government didn't mind profiting from it in the seediest manner.

Documents showed that Norquist allowed his nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, Americans for Tax Reform, to be used as a pass-through for money that Abramoff's clients handed over to finance lobbying campaigns aimed at influencing public officials. For his trouble, Norquist kept a cut of the funds.

For instance, the Choctaw Indian tribe in Mississippi paid Americans for Tax Reform $1.1 million in 1999 alone. Norquist passed the money along to another college buddy, Ralph Reed, who was simultaneously running the powerful Christian Coalition and a for-profit political consulting company. Reed used the money to run a religious-based antigambling campaign whose veiled purpose was preventing a rival tribe from cutting in on the Choctaw casino business.

Experts said tax-exempt organizations such as Americans for Tax Reform could not legally act as a conduit for money intended to profit a private business.

Yet no charges were filed or sanctions issued. Some Republicans shied away from Norquist for a time, but he clearly has weathered the storm.

Norquist's power starts with "the pledge." Politicians who sign it vow not only to oppose efforts to increase marginal tax rates, but also to block "any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits," unless they are matched by other reductions of tax rates.

All but six GOP members of the House and seven Senate Republicans have signed the pledge. With the brave exception of freshman Congressman Kevin Yoder in Kansas, all GOP members of the Missouri and Kansas congressional delegations have signed on.

The pledge leaves little maneuvering room when it comes to solving fiscal problems because most economists and just about everybody with an ounce of sense agrees that new revenues must join spending cuts to reduce the deficit.

Such is Norquist's grip on the Republican Party that it was considered an act of courage for GOP senators recently to vote to repeal billions of dollars in ethanol subsidies.

Washington, we know, is a planet unto itself. But here in the heartland, it's surreal to watch an unelected guy with a broken ethical compass bring the capital to a standstill and thwart the spirit of compromise that the majority of Americans say they want. Who elected Grover Norquist? He did, that's who. And Washington's political class has not the shame, nor the spine, to send him packing.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Barbara Shelly is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at bshelly@kcstar.com.

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