It’s not about Grover

Bart Marcois Public Affairs Consultant
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Stop calling it “Grover Norquist’s tax pledge.”

As Congress debates the issues of tax revenue, debt reduction and government spending that we call “the fiscal cliff,” we are hearing news stories about the anti-tax pledge made to Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR).

ATR is a non-profit organization devoted to curtailing government spending by reducing the amount of taxes Americans pay. Grover Norquist, ATR’s founder, wants to increase Americans’ freedom by decreasing the portion of our income and resources the government takes from us.

Grover’s Wednesday meetings are a legendary weekly confluence of conservative organizations that share the goal of reducing the size and influence of government in our lives. By opening up a forum to diverse groups and individuals, he has increased his own influence.

A visit to the Wednesday meeting at ATR has become nearly obligatory for Republican aspirants to public office. When they come to Washington to introduce themselves to party officials, fundraisers and activists, a pilgrimage to ATR is a sine qua non because representatives from over 120 organizations attend regularly. Most of these are national organizations, with chapters in every congressional district.

People come to the meeting to present themselves, their platforms and their campaigns to the entire group, not just to Grover Norquist. They do this because they know that among the attendees are people who have tremendous influence in their state, congressional district or other electoral jurisdiction.

When candidates attend the meeting and make a pitch for their campaigns to the assembly, they are doing it because they know it will help them win over the activists and voters who will determine the outcome of their elections. They consider it an effective way to convince voters to support them. They sign the tax pledge because they believe it demonstrates their commitment to preserving American liberty.

The pledge itself is very simple. Formally known as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, it consists of a single sentence:

“I, __________, pledge to the taxpayers of the __________ district of the state of __________, and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

The signers promise simply that they will not vote for any net tax increase, either by increasing rates or eliminating or reducing deductions and credits. They recognize explicitly what every household knows by instinct: facing resource scarcity, we cannot always control our income, but we can always control our spending.

But it is important to note the wording of the pledge. The signers do not make any promise to Grover Norquist; they make their promises to their constituents and to the American people. Their commitment is to their voters, not to Grover. That is why they do it, and why they are reluctant to break that oath.

It’s convenient for members of the media, who want each story to have a protagonist and an antagonist, and for the power brokers in Washington, who want to hasten the transfer of resources from America to Washington, to personalize policy decisions. It’s much easier to defeat a rational policy decision if it is portrayed as the evil machinations of one man to gain power. That’s why we now hear a daily drumbeat asking why one unelected citizen should have so much power over the elected representatives of the American people — why one man should be able to stand in the way of a deal.

“The Republicans cannot negotiate in good faith, and cannot compromise,” we are told, because “their hands are tied by the pledge they made to Grover Norquist.” The next step is obvious: make Grover the image of evil, and tie the taxpayer protection pledge to him. “The Republicans cannot bargain with President Obama or Congressional Democrats, because they sold their souls to the devil (who looks a lot like Grover Norquist).”

But they didn’t sell their souls — they made a public commitment based on principles they putatively believe. They promised to protect their constituents from rapacious demands of powerful interests who want more taxpayer dollars. Making that pledge is the essence of public service, and they should be proud of it.

It isn’t about Grover — it’s about keeping a pledge to taxpayers to be wise stewards of the money they send to Washington. Calling it “Grover’s pledge” is a way to trivialize it and turn it upside down — to portray it as harming, rather than defending, the interests of the taxpayers. The principles haven’t changed, however, and the signers of that pledge will be held accountable by those to whom they made the promise: their constituents.

Bart Marcois was a career Foreign Service Officer, serving in four Middle Eastern countries. He was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for International Affairs.