This week, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the "Super Committee," will hold as many as two public meetings in advance of their late-November deadline for action. Many questions loom over the Super Committee's work, but perhaps the biggest is whether the stripped-down process that Congress established for it can overcome Washington gridlock, or whether special interests -- led by tax lobbyist Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) -- will continue to block the path forward.
Some commentators have blamed our system of government as established by the Founders for Washington's inability to act. But it is really layer-upon-layer of lard imposed by modern politicians -- particularly the filibuster, hyper-partisanship, and special-interest pledges -- that entrench obstruction.
The promising thing about the Super Committee is that it strips away some of this lard from the final vote on any budget deal, disallowing use of such tactics as the filibuster and the "majority of the majority" rule (where the House speaker only brings to the House floor legislation that has the support of the majority of his political party). Still to be determined, however, is whether people like Norquist can prevent our constitutional system of government from working even with those impediments stripped off.
There is reason to worry about continued gridlock. After all, all six Republicans on the Super Committee have signed a pledge written and enforced by Norquist that they will oppose any measure that increases tax revenues under any circumstances, even if those revenues come from raising taxes on billionaires or closing ridiculous loopholes. This "no new taxes ever" pledge has even staunch anti-tax Republicans, such as U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, warning that Washington has become "shackled by ideological demands." In fact, in a stunning statement on the House Floor this month, Rep. Wolf pointed directly to Norquist and his pledge in wondering whether "one person's demand for ideological purity is paralyzing Congress."
But there are also some reasons for optimism. Last week, Montana Senator Max Baucus -- a Democratic member of the Super Committee -- told USA Today that a New York Times report saying "that the committee has stalemated because the six Republicans refuse to budge on tax increases is false." Baucus said, "We are talking about lots of options -- a lot of options including cutting spending and a lot of options about raising revenue. No decisions made. That article was not quite accurate because the revenue is very much alive."
If Senator Baucus is right and "revenue is very much alive," that means at least one of his Republican colleagues on the Super Committee is seriously considering putting their constitutionally-required oath to serve "We the People" over their commitment to Grover's pledge. This would be a stinging defeat to Norquist and a sign that his stranglehold over conservatives in Congress may be waning.
Happily, such declarations of independence are growing among conservatives in public office, presumably as they realize just how angry we the people -- desperate for jobs, worried about the growing deficit -- are about Washington paralysis. Senator Tom Coburn, a straight-talking, anti-tax Oklahoma Republican put it recently, "Grover, you're stupid, forget it, we're going to vote the right way." Speaking to David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press, Senator Coburn explained his position, asking:
Which pledge is most important ... the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don't?
The office of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said much the same thing, telling a Bangor newspaper unequivocally, "She pledges allegiance to the flag and the Constitution, and that's it." Just weeks earlier, Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota told POLITICO, "There are going to be lots of people who made pledges in the past about on various tax pledges that have been put out there that are probably going to have to revisit those."
All this on the heels of Republican former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell that "If Grover Norquist is more powerful than the President of the United States and Congress, he should run for president... It's time to now peel all the layers of the onion off of Grover Norquist." Weeks later, Rep. Wolf ventured to do just that with his absolutely blistering attack on Norquist, criticizing him not only for his strong-arm tactics in enforcing his pledge, but also for ethical concerns and associations with unsavory characters such as convicted felon Jack Abramoff, which, in Wolf's words, should "give any fair-minded person pause."
Echoing statements from many other elected officials who put their oath to the Constitution first, my organization, Constitutional Accountability Center, has challenged Norquist to make a very simple declaration. Norquist should announce that an elected official's oath to the U.S. Constitution is paramount over his ATR pledge, and every other pledge, no exceptions, and that it is the public officials -- not Grover or any other special interest -- who must decide what their oaths require. So far, nearly 11,000 people across America have gone to www.gridlockgrover.com to sign a message to Grover Norquist telling him to do just this.
Up to now, Norquist has seemed to want his pledge raised above the Constitution and damn the consequences. Yet President George Washington clearly had the likes of Norquist in mind when, in his farewell address to the nation, Washington warned us that "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government...."
It is therefore going to be up to our public officials to take "the power of the people" back. That's why we should all be watching closely in the coming month to see whether members of the Super Committee -- and every member of Congress -- raise their oath to the U.S. Constitution above all other pledges, heeding the advice of George Washington himself, and put Grover Norquist and his pledge back in their place.
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