Washington's tax-cut true-believers are 'in' again

The phone in Grover Norquist's office is ringing incessantly. He has a senator on one line, a reporter on hold, a camera crew setting up in his office, and an interviewer sitting directly across from him, watching it all.

Mr. Norquist is head of Americans for Tax Reform, a "grass roots" tax-cut advocacy group - which means that with the arrival of the Bush administration and its proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, he's become one of Washington's more sought-after figures. And he's relishing the limelight. After 10 years of playing defense in the tax fight, he is a happy warrior again.

"It's like at the end of those 'Braveheart' movies where there are two groups of guys running, one chasing the other. They're both running, but it's more fun to be part of the team that's broken through the lines," Norquist says, a grin breaking out on his round face.

Indeed, the early stages of the 2001 tax battle look less like a fight than a rout, with some Republicans now talking of President Bush's proposed cut as a low-end "starting point." Enthusiastically leading the charge are tax-cut true-believers like Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the National Tax-Limitation Committee, the National Tax Payers Union, and the Club For Growth.

It may be the clearest symbol yet of just how radical a change is under way in the nation's capital: After spending the past decade as veritable Washington outcasts, Norquist and his tax-cut allies are suddenly back in the 'cool' crowd.

In theory, what's at stake is the future of the tax code, but for many of the groups involved, the fight is just as much about the past - returning to the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. Those policies, the groups maintain, are the best way to return the nation to prosperity and growth.

All of which has Democrats and some economists scratching their heads. Never mind the fact that the United States is not even in a recession yet, as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified last week. They wonder if anyone remembers the not-so-distant past, when President Clinton brought about the nation's longest period of economic growth through belt-tightening and even raising taxes.

"You mean 4.5 percent growth [under Clinton] wasn't fast enough?" asks Robert Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office. "That's just absurd. What was it about Reaganomics that they liked so much?"

What it was they liked

The better question probably is: What was it about President Reagan they liked so much? And the answer might be "everything," particularly for Norquist. Back in 1985, Reagan created ATR, handpicked its board members, and drafted Norquist to head it and help push through the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

Once the bill was law, however, Norquist decided to make his position permanent. He changed the group's mission to tax reductions at all levels of government and created its main tool, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, an official-looking certificate that candidates and politicians sign, promising not to raise taxes.

Norquist does not fit the conventional image of a lobbyist, and in many ways he isn't. He is an ideologue with a cause. Bespectacled and bearded, he looks and acts more like an excitable college professor - all gesticulations and fervent beliefs.

Listening to him, the political world, or at least the Republican half of it, falls into two categories: "There are those who sign the pledge and win, and those who don't and lose."

He is an engaging, if sometimes blunt, speaker. When he says his tax-cut enthusiasm is the result of a revelation he had at the tender age of 14, it sounds believable. "I thought, how come if we're right, the voters keep electing these socialists at the local level? I thought the reason Republicans didn't do better was they needed some kind of branding, like Coca-Cola. Something easy for the voters to understand. Lower taxes are that brand."

This is something Reagan understood, he says, and it helped modernize and grow the Republican Party. That's one of the reasons Norquist has made it his mission to get one major thing named after Reagan in each state and one small thing in each of the nation's 3,067 counties.

Norquist is in part responsible for the recent renaming of Washington National Airport, now known as Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. After years of trying to get "the Gipper" his own 60-foot likeness on Mt. Rushmore, Norquist seems to have settled for having the access road to the monument named for him.

Norquist is not alone in his devotion. To many, Reagan has become a kind of catch-all Republican folk hero - nearly every wing of the party claims Reagan as its guiding light. Certainly, the former president's belief in tax-cutting has taken center stage since Mr. Bush's election.

"Truly we are all 'Reaganites' now, especially President George W. Bush, whose commitment to his program of across-the-board tax-rate reductions and pro-growth policies seems to grow stronger every day," former Rep. Jack Kemp said recently.

For the moment anyway, Norquist and his allies think the best way to honor Reagan is for Bush to at least hold firm on his tax cut.

Over the weekend, the American Conservative Union held its annual Conservative Political Action Conference just across the Potomac in Arlington, Va., featuring a session called "No Compromises: The Case for the Bush Tax Cut." The National Committee on Tax Limitation, not content with just staving off compromise, wants even bigger cuts: "$2 trillion-plus should be the range."

Holding firm

Any breaking of the ranks is not acceptable on this point, especially within the administration. Recent comments by Bush's head of Faith-Based Programs, John DiIulio, opposing the elimination of the estate tax were not appreciated. Mr. DiIulio said the tax led people to leave large gifts to charity.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," Norquist says, oozing exasperation. "Do I believe that some of the odder gifts to weird art museums will be affected? Yes. But that's not going to affect what [DiIulio] wants to do, because no one dies and leaves a million dollars to a soup kitchen."

Of course, some large estates wind up as the germ of things like the Ford Foundation or Pew Charitable Trusts. But soup kitchens notwithstanding, Norquist says tax cuts are going to happen this year, possibly with more coming next year.

And when that happens, don't expect him to just go away. His mission is larger, he says. It is about getting the Reagan revolution back on track.

He plans on working with Republican state legislatures to pressure their Democratic congressmen and senators. The goal is to have states pass resolutions demanding their Washington counterparts do things like repeal the estate tax, support Individual Retirement Account expansion, and support Bush's tax-cut plan.

In the end, Norquist says, his goal is to reduce the size of government by half. How far ahead is he looking? For an answer, he pulls out an essay outlining ATR's goals - for the next 25 years.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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