Grover Norquist is once again playing kingmaker, determining not just the direction of the Republican Party but of the entire US economy. His anti-tax zealotry has made it virtually impossible for Republicans to cut a sensible deal to raise the debt ceiling. But just yesterday, Norquist seemingly flip-flopped and said that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts would not violate his anti-tax pledge, leaving the door open to Republicans supporting a “grand bargain” deal to cut spending, lower corporate taxes and restructure Social Security and Medicare, which sounds like an awfully good offer for the GOP (for Democrats, not so much). The White House is using Norquist to bolster its case while every reporter in Washington is amplifying his words. Norquist has since walked his original statement back.
I’ve got another question: who cares what Norquist says and why does he still have any credibility left? Just a few years ago he was a central player in the Jack Abramoff scandal, using his connections to launder nearly $1 million from Abramoff’s Indian tribe clients to conservative activist Ralph Reed and Christian anti-gambling groups who were fighting a proposed state lottery in Alabama, according to an extensive report by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
“Call Ralph re Grover doing pass through,” Abramoff wrote in an e-mail reminder to himself in 1999. In return, Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Return (ATR), took a piece of the cut. “What is the status of the Choctaw stuff?” Norquist wrote to Abramoff that same year. “I have a 75g hole in my budget from last year. ouch.”
According to the New York Times:
Indian tribes say Mr. Abramoff dropped Mr. Norquist’s name when he began trying to win their business. Mr. Norquist used his platform to argue against taxing Indian gambling. Mr. Abramoff billed the tribes tens of millions of dollars to try to fend off antigambling groups and regulators and to send members of Congress on lavish overseas trips. The tribes say Mr. Abramoff also instructed them to give money to Mr. Norquist’s groups as way of getting an audience with the Bush administration. The tribes gave $1.5 million to Americans for Tax Reform and $250,000 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, the group founded by Mr. Norquist and Ms. [Gail] Norton.
Adds The New Yorker:
At the start of 2000, the casino battle intensified. Reed needed more cash, and the Choctaws agreed to supply some. After discussing several options, Reed and Abramoff again decided to send the money via Norquist, but this time, apparently, he kept some of it for Americans for Tax Reform. “I need to give Grover something for helping, so the first transfer will be a bit lighter,” Abramoff wrote to Reed on February 7, 2000.
Ten days later, Abramoff sent another e-mail to Reed: “ATR will be sending a second $300K today. How much more do we need? We can’t lose this.” Once again, Americans for Tax Reform apparently took a cut of the money, prompting Abramoff to write to himself a few days later: “Grover kept another $25K!”
The committee also released correspondence relating to a meeting that Norquist helped organize in May, 2001, at which some of Abramoff’s Indian clients met with President Bush. On April 5th, Abramoff wrote to Norquist, “Here’s the first of the checks for the tax event at the White House. I’ll have another $25K shortly.” Sixteen months later, on August 12, 2002, Abramoff wrote to an official with the Saginaw Chippewas, another of his client tribes, “Last year Grover set a meeting for certain select tribal leaders (Coushatta and Chitimach were the only ones) and the speakers of the house of several legislatures to meet with the President in a small meeting for photos, etc. The tribes paid for the event (total cost was $100K for the entire thing, and each tribe put in $50K). Grover has asked me to line up a few tribes to do so again.”
Joked Mark Salter, a top aide to John McCain: “By his own admission, Grover couldn’t be any closer to Abramoff if they moved to Massachussetts and got married.” The Weekly Standard pointed to Reed and Norquist as “symbols of how onetime anti-Washington political insurgents traded in their idealism for gobs of corporate cash.”
All three were key figures in the Bush-era “culture of corruption.” Abramoff went to prison in 2006 for conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion. He got out in December 2010, right after Republicans recaptured the House and Norquist’s anti-tax agenda received a major boost. Abramoff’s reputation is still in tatters. Norquist’s should be too.
—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.