Q&A: Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist

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Larry Downing / Reuters

Since founding Americans for Tax Reform in the 1980s, Grover Norquist has become one of the conservative movement’s most influential figures. Each Wednesday, Norquist, 54, draws an eclectic mix of center-right activists to his downtown Washington office to discuss a range of topics. When Norquist speaks, Republicans listen. That’s why an astonishing array of mostly conservative politicians — nearly 280 members of Congress, 13 governors and 1,250 state legislators – have signed ATR’s pledge to oppose any new taxes.

But one of those signatories, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, is waging a public campaign against part of Norquist’s orthodoxy: that reforms to the tax code should never increase government revenue. A conservative Republican member of the so-called Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of senators crafting a deficit reduction plan, Coburn insists that some tax breaks should be ended — and that the government should be able to keep some of the change. Sunday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Coburn laid out his argument in stark terms, challenging Norquist’s power at its source: “Which pledge is most important.… the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all of American conservatives when, in fact, they really don’t?”

In an interview with TIME, Grover Norquist talked about how he sees the budget debate, why he’s at war with Tom Coburn, and the costs of breaking his organization’s pledge:

Can we balance the budget without raising taxes? If so, how?

The question is: How do we reduce spending from 25% of GDP, which is where Obama put us? The focus is on total government spending. Can we bring it down, in a reasonable and politically acceptable way? That’s what the Paul Ryan plan does. It puts us on a gradual reform path to reducing the size of government. Over time, it will reduce the deficit and turn it into growth.

What should be done about the debt ceiling? Should we raise it?

Obama has been perhaps the most partisan President since Truman. He hasn’t learned to be civil – note his insulting speech to Paul Ryan, who did us the courtesy of scoring a budget. The president has to talk to Republicans when it comes to the debt ceiling. He has reached the debt ceiling before anyone expected. He now has to talk to [House Speaker John] Boehner and the Republicans in the Senate about where we should go. There should be a requirement that structural reform takes place before Republicans give Obama more money to spend and borrow.

What would that structural reform look like?

One reform that people have talked about is, at the lowest level, a vote on a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, and require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Another would require local and state governments to have complete transparency in their pension obligations, so the city of Chicago, for example, would have to tell the people they borrow money from what obligations they have on pensions. Another thing: Hard spending caps to limit the amount of money the administration can spend over the next several years. My strong recommendation is that [Obama] not be given an increase in the debt ceiling not for a year, but for two to three months. Obama is a guy who claims to be unaware that there was a Tea Party, a guy that’s detached from the country…. He needs to be brought into a room every two to three months and be reminded that the country just had an election. If you don’t keep him on a short leash, he’s going to campaign with the guys in New York and San Francisco, and what the country needs right now is a President, not a candidate.

What should be done about military spending?

We should look at Pentagon spending as we do all others and ask: Are there ways to spend less and still do what the Constitution requires, and what the American people want? And that is: keep the country safe from attack. We have to have a conversation about whether Obama’s plan to increase spending to occupy Afghanistan helps make America a safer country, or not. I think at some point, we may decide that we don’t have to have that size military and cost footprint in the country. You look at what you want to accomplish, how many soldiers you need. We have to look at the Veterans Administration and military pension system.

You’re suggesting that a reduction in military spending may be necessary. How does that sit with your fellow Republicans?

Spending an extra dollar on the D.C. public school system isn’t spending an extra dollar on education. Spending an extra dollar with the Pentagon doesn’t buy you an extra dollar on defense. Republicans need to look skeptically at military spending.

What should be done with ethanol tax credits?

I’d certainly be in favor of repealing it, and reducing the income tax by $6 billion over the next two years so that we’d get rid of a distortive tax credit and not have tax reform be a backdoor tax increase. The important thing about tax reform is you make the tax code less complicated, easier for people to understand.

Is there ever a place for tax credits?

The answer is probably. Tax reductions are usually simpler and less distortive. I’m certainly willing to look at getting rid of tax deductions/credits, and go to dramatically reduced rates. There’s also giving people an option. If you’ve organized your life around the current system, gotten health insurance, because you’re in the top tax rate, you could stay there. Or you could stay there with a dramatically lower tax rate where you gave up much or all of the various deductions. I could take either approach.

So why are you at war with Sen. Coburn?

Sen. Coburn has been a hero for taxpayers in fighting earmarks, which were the currency of corruption. Sen. Coburn [Sunday] suggested he’d supported a $1-2 trillion tax increase, which is what the Gang of Six and the Obama debt commission have been talking about, in return for promises of spending restraint. I think that’s an unnecessary repeat of what happened in 1982, when the Democrats promised Ronald Reagan $3 of real spending restraint for every dollar of tax increase. Then, in 1990, Bush 41 was viewed as a cheaper date by Congress, and offered $2 of spending restraint by every dollar of tax increase. To do a third iteration is unwise. The good news is a majority of the House of Representatives members have written a commitment to their constituents that they’d never support a tax increase. Sen. Coburn signed the pledge to the people of Oklahoma that he wouldn’t pass a tax increase. And at the end of the day, I hope Mr. Coburn recognizes that he should keep his promise.

What’s the cost of breaking the pledge?

Did you enjoy George H.W. Bush’s second term?

How concerned are you that the shift by Sen. Coburn and others means ATR’s pledge is weakening?

Not at all. Look around the country, at the state level: The governors of 13 states have taken the pledge and are keeping it. In Florida, Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and California – where enough state legislators have taken a pledge that they’ve stopped Gov. Brown’s $12 billion tax increase on the ballot. So, the pledge is proving itself very strong. It couldn’t be stronger or more powerful.

What’s at stake for Republicans in this debate?

Not too much — just the country. We have high unemployment. We’ve got to turn this country around as quickly as possible.