The Common Good
April 2005

Reform, Reduce, Destroy

by Duane Shank | April 2005

For political strategist Grover Norquist, tax policy is just a means to a brutish end.

The ideological architect of the Bush tax policies is Grover Norquist,

The ideological architect of the Bush tax policies is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). Called by USA Today "the most influential Washingtonian most people have never heard of," Norquist has pursued for nearly two decades the conservative goal of shrinking the size of government through reducing tax revenue. Through ATR, founded in 1986, he coordinates the "Wednesday meeting"—a weekly strategy and coordinating meeting attended by all the major conservative organizations and regularly by administration officials.

Norquist’s fundamental belief is that taxation is theft—money the government "takes by force." It’s the libertarian view that has animated the conservative movement for years, grounded in an unshakeable faith that if economic decisions are left to individuals and the unrestrained free market, all will be well. Government is always the enemy, and the ultimate goal of the movement is—in a phrase that has now entered the online Dictionary of Public Finance—to "starve the beast." ATR’s mission statement says: "The government’s power to control one’s life derives from its power to tax. We believe that power should be minimized."

And the easiest way to accomplish that, of course, is to cut off revenue to government by cutting taxes. In this view any tax cut, at any time, for any reason, is by definition good, as it takes revenue from government. The result is less government spending, since there is less to spend. Privatizing government functions—including Social Security, health care, federal civilian jobs, and education—reduces spending even further. Norquist bluntly told Bill Moyers in a recent interview, "What I’d like to do is reduce taxes on all people and reduce the power of government." While this might not seem inherently unreasonable to many, he has also famously said that his goal was to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." He has known Bush’s top political adviser Karl Rove since both were College Republicans, and they now coordinate an inside-outside strategy.

ATR also claims coalitions in all 50 states, where it pursues the same agenda of tax cutting. In addition, the group has also had a lead role in opposing campaign finance reform and attacking Sen. John McCain during his 2000 presidential run. Norquist has been an informal adviser to Newt Gingrich and was a strong proponent of the Contract With America.

Norquist is not ashamed to discuss his main political strategy. In May 2003 he was quoted in The Denver Post as saying, "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals—and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship."

Looking at Capitol Hill, it’s easy to see the same strategy at work. Another long-term goal sometimes named by Norquist’s camp is that of driving moderates of both parties out of office, which they believe will help build the power and reach of a more conservative Republican party for decades to come.

President Bush’s agenda for the 109th Congress includes making the previous tax cuts permanent, privatizing Social Security, and a yet to be defined "reform" of the tax system. Will the principle that "those who benefit the most from a society have a moral duty to bear the greatest burden" or that of "starve the beast" prevail? We can be sure that if Grover Norquist has his way, the answer will be determined by nasty partisanship.

Duane Shank is policy adviser at Sojourners.

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