Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) President Grover Norquist came to the ornate House Ways and Means Committee room Thursday to school House Republicans on the no-new-taxes pledge 236 members of the conference have signed.
The dramatic appearance comes just as Congress is preparing for the biggest tax overhaul in 26 years and as a limited but growing number of leading and rank-and-file Republicans have disavowed the pledge.
Emerging from the meeting, Norquist on Thursday denied that the ATR pledge is vulnerable to defections.
“We went through this all through 2011 where every time somebody hiccupped [Democrats] said, ‘Oh, maybe Republicans are open to a tax increase.’ Each time that turned out not to be the case, although there was certainly hope on the part of Reid, Pelosi and Obama,” he said.
Turnout was low, with at most 20 members showing up, but that is not necessarily an indication that Norquist’s power is waning. The meeting came just as many members were catching flights home after the last vote of the week.
Congress is developing plans for an overhaul of the tax code, likely next year, and Norquist wants to ensure that such a reform is not used to raise new net revenue for deficit reduction.
“A congressman or senator who got elected promising the American people that they won’t raise taxes needs to focus on the commitment they made,” Norquist said after the meeting.
“Democrats want a deal that raises taxes. The answer to that is no. The American people have elected a majority of the House who has made the commitment, and 40 senators, and are about to elect a president, President Romney, who has made that commitment,” he added.
Norquist was invited to speak by the House’s chief tax writer, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), and the leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio.)
Jordan said after the meeting that the pledge is stronger than ever, with more candidates signing it ahead of this year’s election than in 2010.
Democrats have long demonized Norquist, and seized on the appearance Thursday as a sign Republicans remained beholden to him.
The top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.) showed up outside the committee door to address a throng of print and television reporters.
“It is especially troubling that Ways and Means Republicans are holding royal court for a person who single-mindedly is trying to prevent a balanced approach to deficit reduction and is determined to protect the tax cuts for the very wealthiest in this country,” he said. “Why aren’t they sitting down and trying to figure out how to get an infrastructure bill done … instead of sitting down with Mr. No?”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday used the occasion to accuse Republicans of prioritizing the anti-tax pledge above their pledge to serve the country.
"His physical presence is not any different than the influence that he has on that caucus where he's saying, 'The pledge to me is more important than the pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States,' " she said. "If we're going to take any pledges here … it should be a pledge to uphold our democracy, not to give tax cuts to the richest people in the country."
Camp, in contrast, tried to downplay the event.
He left the meeting early and said Norquist was simply “reinforcing his commitment to tax reform.”
He denied that the Capitol visit bolstered the Democratic charge that Norquist was issuing “marching orders” to his GOP flock.
“A lot of groups come to Capitol Hill and hold public meetings, and this was another one of those,” Camp told The Hill.
The closed-door meeting with Norquist was open neither to the public nor to the press.
At a press conference Thursday morning, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reiterated his opposition to tax increases but made no reference to the pledge when he was asked about the Norquist meeting. “Listen, I've been around the political process for a long time. I've never voted to raise taxes,” he said.
Boehner has rarely been comfortable talking about Norquist, a man he called “some random person” in 2011. He acknowledged the occasional dispute about what constitutes a “tax increase” and quipped that he hoped “they resolve it all” at the meeting.
Norquist deflected questions Thursday about whether he had become a PR problem for Republicans in the face of Democratic attacks. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a top antagonist, was “flailing around,” Norquist said. “He wants to have an argument with me. I’m not running for anything."
Reid’s problem, Norquist calmly charged, was with his own thinning Democratic majority, which the Nevada Democrat is in danger of losing come January — just a few years after it reached a high of 60 seats. “That’s not a PR problem. That’s a reality problem,” Norquist said.
Jordan said Norquist had informed members on how to respond to tricky questions about the pledge. As an example, he said Norquist explained that some revenue raising is permissible if it only comes from economic growth rather than net higher taxes.
The tax reform that Camp is working on will aim to simplify the tax code and lower marginal rates on individuals and corporations while eliminating some tax breaks.
The proposal will meet with Norquist’s approval, and not violate the pledge, if the government gets new revenue only because the simpler tax code has caused the economy to grow.
That growth should naturally increase tax intake, for example, because more sales and more jobs would increase sales and income taxes collected.
Boehner last year offered to bring in new tax revenue as part of a failed grand bargain on the deficit with President Obama, but he said it would have been generated through economic growth and not tax increases.
“I do believe that there's a way to resolve this,” Boehner said. “But at this point, giving this government more revenue would be like giving a cocaine addict who wants to quit more cocaine.”
Mike Lillis contributed.