Tax Wars: Norquist Strikes Back

Moff Jerjerrod: The Emperor’s coming here?
Darth Vader: That is correct, Commander. And, he is most displeased with your apparent lack of progress.
Moff Jerjerrod: We shall double our efforts.
Darth Vader: I hope so, Commander, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.

– Star Wars: Episode VI, Return of the Jedi


There was a disturbance in the Force on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon.

At least for Democrats.

It’s one thing for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to tangle with the likes of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Boehner and McConnell are the Democrats’ traditional adversaries. For Democrats, they’re just on the “Darth Vader” level.

But it’s an altogether different enterprise for the man who Democrats view as the GOP’s “Emperor” to swing by.

To hear Reid, you’d think this Congressional guest had the death sentence on 12 systems.

“The most powerful man in Washington will be visiting Congress this coming Thursday,” warned Reid a few days ago. “Grover Norquist is the only Republican leader who can truthfully say he has the entire Republican party in the palm of his hand.”

You could nearly hear the Imperial March, doubling as Norquist’s leitmotif and wafting through the Congressional corridors. After all, Democrats think Norquist is more dangerous than a Jedi mind trick on a garrison of Storm Troopers.

“I think they are in touch every day,” said Pelosi when asked about Norquist’s pilgrimage to the Capitol. “I think his physical presence here is not any different than the influence that he has on that caucus where he says ‘a pledge to me is more important than your pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States.’”

It’s that “pledge” which lured Norquist to Capitol Hill Thursday. It’s a pledge that nearly every GOP lawmaker in the House and Senate has taken not to raise taxes.

Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Republican Study Committee invited Norquist to huddle with lawmakers and aides about the pledge. An invite to the session said Norquist would discuss “What the pledge is and is not; how the pledge should be communicated, what you need to know when answering questions about the pledge and how Congress can make the tax code simpler, fairer, flatter and easier to understand for families and job creators in a pledge-compliant way.”

Democrats took a far more pessimistic view of the conclave. Pelosi flak Nadeam Elshami Tweeted that the meeting was really a chance for Norquist to hand out “marching orders” to Congressional Republicans.

This comes as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said just a few weeks ago that he didn’t sign the pledge because doing so would “outsource your principles.”

Democrats seized on Bush’s reservation. One news release touted the meeting as a “Battle Royale,” adding that Norquist was there to “tutor” Republicans.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, found it odd that the GOP majority would permit Norquist hold forth in the very room where lawmakers hash out the nation’s tax policies.

“It’s deeply troubling that Ways and Means Republicans and others are holding royal court for a person who single mindedly is determined to prevent a balanced approach to deficit reduction,” Levin said. “They are holding court for him, not their constituents.”

That’s precisely the type of thing which makes Norquist as mad as the Sand People waving their gaffi sticks. Norquist notes that the pledge is clear that political candidates take a vow to their district, state and “the American people.”

And then Norquist took aim directly at his Democratic nemesis.

“You have Harry Reid going around lying every day about what the pledge means,” Norquist said. He sent similar fire in the direction of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) later.

The closed-door session with Norquist drew about 100 Congressional aides and approximately 15-20 House Republicans. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) skipped the meeting, running up the stairs, hollering about catching a plane. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) swung by for a few minutes then told a clutch of reporters in the hall he was “going to eat lunch.” But that wasn’t before the scribes asked him if some Republicans asked Norquist to modify the pledge. There are rumblings that some Republicans want more flexibility in the pledge.

“There was no discussion about amending and wiggling,” said Mulvaney.

There’s a perception by some that the pledge curbs the ability of lawmakers to raise taxes if it could help them secure a deal to dramatically slash overall federal spending. An Americans for Tax Reform tip sheet suggests that lawmakers could support “legislation eliminating a particular tax credit or deduction so long as the same piece of legislation contained a reduction by the same amount or more.” In other words, the trick is to make the overall tax burden net neutral or less. But potential tax increases must be offset in the same bill.

“There are no exceptions to the pledge,” reads the tip sheet. “Politicians often use ‘emergencies’ to justify increasing taxes. In the unfortunate event of a real crisis or natural disaster, the legislator should propose spending cuts in other areas to finance the emergency response.”

Naturally, Democrats touted this provision as an example of how the pledge is uncompromising.

“Norquist makes it impossible to govern this nation responsibly,” bristled Schumer.

Norquist’s session with lawmakers and staff ran about an hour. After the meeting, Norquist exited the room and conducted an impromptu press conference in the hall. Over the next 34 minutes, journalists peppered Norquist with ten questions. Some of Norquist’s answers ran three to four minutes. He laced his replies with tales about budget fights of the early 1990s and references to this fall’s Missouri and Montana Senate contests. Norquist spoke confidently of Mitt Romney’s chances against President Obama as well as the GOP’s opportunities to capture control of the Senate. He noted that if Republicans held the White House, Senate and House of Representatives next year, the pledge could enhance the GOP’s chances for reforming the nation’s tax code.

“People worry about lawmakers going into a room and that tax reform could become an increase,” Norquist said.

Last November, John Boehner tried to downplay Norquist’s role in GOP ranks when a reporter asked  about whether he was a “positive influence” on Congressional Republicans.

“It’s not often I’m asked about some random person in America,” said Boehner.

Democrats think Norquist is anything but random. And if it were up to them, Democrats would dispatch Norquist to a galaxy far, far away.