By Bill Boyarsky
“Casino Jack,” the movie about crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, portrayed anti-tax demagogue Grover Norquist as just another member of the Washington fixer’s club. But the filmmakers greatly underestimated him.
Abramoff went off to prison while Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has stayed around to twist the arms of legislators in every state in an effort to make them sign no-tax-increase pledges. Those pledges, if honored, would result in reductions in already dwindling appropriations for education and social welfare programs and many other needed services in states with huge deficits. “My goal,” Norquist famously said, “is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
He started Americans for Tax Reform during the Reagan administration. Later, he was a leading strategist of Republican Newt Gingrich’s takeover of the House in 1994. Over the years, Americans for Tax Reform has become the nation’s most effective anti-tax organization.
There’s an angry self-righteousness about the movement. Its members seem to see themselves as doing God’s work while the rest of us are sinners, especially the sinner-in-chief in the White House. But as Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
And sin—if it is a sin to betray the public trust—is part of the Abramoff-Norquist story, as told in “Casino Jack.” What’s in the film is backed up by documents and news stories about the days, some 15 years ago, when the two men and their cohort were flying high, along with another collaborator, Ralph Reed, who was head of the right-wing Christian Coalition.
Abramoff, played in the film by Kevin Spacey, was known as Casino Jack for his highly expensive lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes involved in gambling enterprises. He was lobbying against lotteries and casinos that would have been competition for his clients.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee said in 2006 that Americans for Tax Reform had been a “conduit” for funds that flowed from Abramoff’s clients to surreptitiously finance grass-roots lobbying campaigns. Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi reported in The Washington Post that “as the money passed through, Norquist’s organization kept a small cut, e-mails show.” Norquist also moved more than $1 milllion from Abramoff clients to Reed, then an influential fundamentalist Christian organizer. “Reed was working to defeat lotteries and casinos that would have competed with Abramoff’s tribal and Internet clients,” the reporters wrote. It would, of course, look better to the public if the money came from Christian and anti-tax groups rather than gambling interests.
Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Norquist told the Post that Americans for Tax Reform worked with Abramoff’s gambling clients because they shared anti-tax, anti-regulatory views. He said his organization was not used to conceal the source of funds sent to Reed. Reed said he hadn’t known the money originated from Indian casinos.
Norquist and Reed moved on with their careers. Norquist’s best-known activity is pressing officeholders and candidates to make a “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” to voters—a promise to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
Tea party influence in Republican primaries makes this a powerful threat to some politicians. In November, the Republicans won a majority of the nation’s legislative seats. The elections produced the biggest Republican statehouse majority since 1928, according to Stateline.org, published by the Pew Center on the States. This means that state governments in big and small states will be heavily influenced if not controlled by uncompromising signers of the Norquist pledge, all of them frightened by the prospect of Norquist-led tea party opposition in their next primary election.
This uncompromising politics leaves states with deficits only one alternative—to sharply cut money for medical aid to the poor, education, law enforcement and many other services. In California, the Republicans in the Legislature won’t even support Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal for legislation that would submit to a popular vote a tax increase to help eliminate a $28 billion budget deficit. Although Democrats control the Legislature, they need Republicans for the two-thirds majority required for passage of the legislation.
This is happening in the state where a popular-vote approval of Proposition 13 in 1978 started the anti-tax movement. I asked John Kartch, communications director for Americans for Tax Reform, about this contradiction in which the anti-taxers now oppose the California Legislature authorizing a popular vote after they supported one in 1978. Kartch, in an e-mail, said Brown should gather enough signatures for a voter initiative putting the measures on the ballot without involving the Legislature. “ATR’s position is that Gov. Brown should not be forcing legislators to do his dirty work, making many of them break their central campaign commitment to constituents in the process,” he said.
That uncompromising attitude in legislatures all over the country will result in great hardship to those dependent on our government’s safety net. The Grover Norquist who was willing to wheel and deal with Jack Abramoff shows no compromise when it comes to inflicting misery on millions of people.
AP / Cliff Owen
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist jokes as he is introduced before addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.