In 1954, while recovering from back surgery, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy began to write a book. It was a study of eight U.S. senators and their then-unpopular decisions that they thought were right for America. It won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize and helped raise Kennedy’s national profile.
The book began with a quote from English statesman Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Today, there is an epidemic of lawmakers sacrificing their judgment not to public opinion, but only one man: Grover Norquist.
You may be asking yourself, as President George H.W. Bush did in an interview with Parade Magazine, “Who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?” He is a colorful anti-tax crusader whose group Americans for Tax Reform maintains a “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” Washington’s version of a blood oath. Any politician who signs it risks the wrath of Norquist and his extensive network of allies if he votes to raise tax rates or eliminate deductions at all for the rest of his career. It sounds more like a mafia hit list than a tool for tax reform.
After decades of skulking in the back alleys of Washington with shady characters like lobbyist Jack Abramoff, he burst on the national stage with the debt-ceiling crisis of last year. His pact, signed by almost every Republican in Congress, almost prevented the United States from paying their debts. Now he’s back in the spotlight again with the coming “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and spending cuts, which is about to hit the economy hard.
His obstruction of a potential deal has brought anti-Norquist sentiment to a head. Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson said he wanted Norquist to drown in a bathtub. That’s a reference to Norquist’s idea that government should be “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Peter King, one of the Republicans who has denounced the pledge, said this of Norquist in response to his insults against King's wife: “He better hope he doesn’t (meet my wife). She’ll knock his head off." Clearly, things are getting ugly.
Amidst all the ugliness, Republicans are slowly beginning to back away from Norquist and his ilk. They do this despite the threat of being “primaried” by more conservative opponents and the all-powerful Norquist. Seven prominent congressional Republicans — Sens. Tom Coburn, Saxby Chambliss, Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander, and Reps. Peter King and Tom Cole, among others — have come out against the pledge in recent days. They offer a modern-day profile in courage, willing to stand up against their party and this hooligan and do the right thing for the country.
Norquist maintains that he’s not worried; after all, he’s been Washington’s chief obstructionist for 20 years and has a pretty good success rate. Take his response to Lindsey Graham: “If you had a pink unicorn, how many dollars in taxes would you raise to trade for the pink unicorn? Since pink unicorns do not exist in the real world, it’s never occurred to me to worry about the senator from South Carolina.”
These courageous congressmen can’t do it alone. Neither can President Barack Obama, who said on Wednesday: “I can only do it with the help of the American people. … Do what it takes to communicate a sense of urgency.” He requested that people call their congressman, just as they did last summer.
Let’s get on it. Let’s mobilize in support of these profiles in courage and show Mr. Norquist that he should be really worried. Let’s show him pink unicorns are real.