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grover norquist

Is Norquist’s tax pledge the cudgel it used to be?

Few — if any — figures loom larger over the last few decades of Republican tax maneuvering than Grover Norquist.

Since his Reagan-era rise, Norquist and his group, Americans for Tax Reform, have worked to secure tax cuts and force lawmakers to keep them. For Republicans, the tax-cutting orthodoxy remains a north star, but there are some tension points amid escalating worries about debt and deficits.

The main point of conflict? GOP interest in a fiscal commission. ATR opposes that and argues it’s a trap to get Republicans to raise taxes. Focus on the issue has risen within the House Republican conference in particular. That’s led to some friction.

Norquist’s innovation: At the root of ATR’s influence is its Taxpayer Protection Pledge. It asks federal officeholders to promise they’ll go against any efforts to raise individual or business income taxes and to oppose any net increase in taxes from getting rid of tax deductions or credits. The pledge allows that deduction or credit cuts could be offset by dollar-for-dollar rate cuts.

Signing it is about as routine for a Republican as filing the paperwork for their candidacy. The vast majority of Republicans in Congress have made the pledge.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some complaints.

The conflict: House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), who got a fiscal commission bill through his panel this year, told us that while he agrees with ATR’s principles and keeping taxes low, he’s got problems with the ironclad nature of the pledge. He isn’t signed on.

Arrington pointed to the need to address the debt and that the pledge makes it impossible to address a “special interest giveaway” or “loophole” in the tax code and use those savings to lower deficits. Here’s more:

Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah), a Budget member who signed ATR’s pledge, told us a fiscal commission was one of the most talked about things during the House GOP’s speaker debates last year.

“If that’s something that the Norquist team doesn’t support and it was one of the most talked about things, that tells you something too,” Moore said. He told us he’s otherwise in lockstep with ATR.

Norquist, though, doesn’t see any problems. He told us in an interview that current deficit pressure doesn’t compare to what lawmakers were feeling in 2010 and 2012, adding that “people were much more panicked then than now.”

Norquist also pointed to Speaker Mike Johnnson’s comments on CNBC when Johnson said “the catch” for a fiscal commission is it shouldn’t begin with the idea that tax increases are on the table. Norquist said that’s the prevailing GOP opinion.

There’s now “a more united Republican Party today than ever in history,” Norquist said, saying he believes Republicans at the presidential, congressional and state level are more locked in against tax increases.

ATR also says it supports a commission focused specifically on spending reduction. Vice President of Communications John Kartch said in a statement that the group “has long worked to establish a spending-cut-only committee, an anti-appropriations committee modeled after the one that existed from 1941-1974,” adding that effort achieved major spending cuts.

What’s working for Grover: At the end of the day, even critics of the pledge see no clear successor for the sort of work Norquist has done. Several sources told us perhaps only former President Donald Trump wields more power from outside Congress over GOP economic policy debates.

Norquist also continues to hold his weekly “Wednesday Meeting” in Washington convening conservative activists, leaders and lawmakers, which have been part of ATR’s playbook since the 1990s. He told us that he’s spending about half his time working on state policies too, and sees significant movement at the state level toward tax cuts.

And of course, top tax writers are squarely in ATR’s corner.

Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the Finance Committee’s top Republican, said he believes the pledge has retained its power and that it’s a principle the GOP should stick to.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Jason Smith (R-Mo.) said the pledge still holds the same power for him. “So I would hope that it does with others,” Smith said. “I’m not one about raising taxes.”

Norquist and other conservative leaders will have no shortage of work to do with the 2025 expiration of the Trump tax cuts coming up. In a recent post on X, Norquist called on every GOP candidate for Congress to pledge to make the 2017 law permanent.

— Laura Weiss

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