The Australian

By Nicole Hemmer

"Who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?"

The question came from former US president George HW Bush this northern summer, but in the past few weeks many Americans have been asking the same thing.

Norquist, an anti-tax activist, now dominates discussion of the fiscal cliff. His "no-new-taxes" pledge has been signed by nearly every Republican in congress. The problem? To avoid going off that fiscal cliff, congress must make a "grand bargain" by January 1. If it doesn't include tax rate increases, President Barack Obama won't sign it into law.

Republicans are in a bind. They could agree to tax rate increases on Americans making more than $US250,000 a year in return for cuts to programs such as Medicare. That, however, would mean breaking Norquist's pledge. And Norquist has made it clear that any Republican who does so will face a primary challenge in the next election.

So to echo Bush: "Who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?"

Norquist runs Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax organisation he founded in 1986.

His opposition to taxation is an expression of his deep disdain for government. "I don't want to abolish government," he famously quipped. "I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

This "starve the beast" mentality has long been a conservative strategy for reducing the size of government. A strict diet of diminishing revenues, anti-tax advocates argue, will naturally lead to a smaller federal state.

The Right has had a chance to test its "starve the beast" theory thanks to a decades-long tax revolt in the US. The tax revolt began in 1978 in California, when double-digit inflation and ballooning housing prices fuelled a grassroots movement for tax relief. And tax relief they got, thanks to a savvy conservative activist called Howard Jarvis. Jarvis authored Proposition 13, which capped property taxes and required a supermajority to raise taxes in the state.

The tax revolt may have started in California but, as the editors of Time magazine put it, it proved to be a "Pacific tidal wave threatening to sweep across the country". That wave brought tax reform to three-quarters of the states before trickling up to the national level with Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980.

As a result, in the past 35 years the US tax burden has declined. For almost all, that is. Those making more than $US250,000 a year saw the biggest drop in the percentage of taxes they pay, while only about half of those making under $US25,000 have a lighter tax load than in the 1980s.

Lower taxes, however, have not resulted in smaller government. With the exception of the Clinton years, federal spending in the US has increased at a breakneck pace, bringing massive debt.

Americans have grown accustomed to discount government. Wars, old age pension, mortgage subsidies, healthcare for the poor and aged: all had on the cheap. Congress built the fiscal cliff as a way to bring that to an end, to force Americans — and themselves — to reckon with the true cost of modern government.

Which brings us back to Grover Norquist. The end result of the tax revolt was not a government drowning in a bathtub but a nation drowning in debt.

To fix it, Norquist and the Republicans who have pledged fealty to him propose solving the crisis solely through (mostly non-defence) spending cuts.

Such cuts would hammer the middle class at a time when median income has declined nearly 10 per cent. They would also exact a price on the most economically vulnerable. Slashing pension and health benefits may not dramatically change the lifestyles of Americans with access to private retirement funds and health insurance, but for the millions who depend upon them — and millions more do in the current economy — cuts will force them to choose between medicine and paying the mortgage.

All this because raising taxes on the top 2 per cent — a group whose income has grown while median household income has fallen — violates a pledge to Grover Norquist. Republican lawmakers could, of course, break their pledge, but it's not really Norquist they fear. He's an avatar for a conservative base that has proved more than willing to throw out any lawmaker who reaches across the aisle. Norquist, who once said "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape", has no power unless Republican voters agree with him. GOP office-holders clearly believe those voters do.

So who the hell is Grover Norquist? He's the conservative base: intransigently partisan, unyieldingly anti-tax. Unless the Republican Party is willing to defy that base, the country will tumble over the fiscal cliff. And since polls show Americans will blame the GOP if that happens, it's quite likely the only thing that will shrink small enough to drown in a bathtub is the Republican Party.

This article was originally published by The Australian