For more than two decades, signing Norquist’s pledge has been an almost religious rite of passage for Washington Republicans.
The 54-year-old president of Americans for Tax Reform is Washington’s anti-tax doctrinal watchdog, his stature derived from the faith of his Republican signatories. He is using all of his authority to prevent GOP leaders from giving an inch on taxes as President Obama and congressional leaders seek a historic compromise to raise the debt ceiling and bring down the deficit.
Since he first collected the signatures of Jack Kemp, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich 25 years ago, Norquist has prepared for this very clash, enlisting about 95 percent of the Republican members of Congress in the crusade against tax increases. Along the way, he has become one of Washington’s most visible and idiosyncratic characters: a zealous, self-promoting tax scourge who presides over a weekly meeting of conservative power brokers and dabbles in stand-up comedy.
On Monday afternoon, as Republican congressional leaders again refused Obama’s entreaty to raise taxes on the wealthy to restrain the nation’s ballooning debt, Norquist, sporting glasses and a closely cropped graying beard, sat at his desk in his 12th Street offices, describing the pledge as a “self-enforcing” and “powerful” tool.
He said it is an immutable covenant with voters, regardless of the mundane demands of governance, one so serious it must be co-signed by two witnesses. As he meticulously folded sheets of newspaper, adjusted business cards, repositioned scissors and laid down a stress ball next to a pair of hand grips, Norquist acknowledged issuing gentle reminders to pledge-takers.
He has, he said, been in e-mail contact “on a regular basis” with “leadership and leadership staff” during the debt talks, “just to check in to see if there was anything they needed from me.” When he read in the news that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a pledge-taker, was apparently considering a compromise, he simply dropped him a note asking, “What did you say?”
Norquist said he has also been in frequent touch with the Republican presidential candidates, who have emerged as a solid bloc against a compromise. Copies of their pledges — with the exception of holdout Jon Huntsman Jr. — are kept in a black binder on the desk of one his interns.
“I talk with [Mitt] Romney directly,” Norquist said. He mentioned that Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) will be attending his Wednesday meeting this week and that Gingrich recently sent him an unsolicited statement strongly opposing backing down in the debt talks. For Norquist, any other position would be unacceptable.