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The NRA's Biggest Gun: Grover Norquist and the Decline of (True) Freedom

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These days, it's hard not to notice Grover Norquist. For the past 25 years, he has locked the Republican Party in a stranglehold with his Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) pledge that binds signatories to vote "NO" on any legislation that would increase the marginal tax rate, no matter how modestly. The pledge has been signed by 95% of House and Senate Republicans in the present U.S. Congress, along with thousands of GOP politicians at the state level.

Now, Norquist can brag about using his status as the most powerful Conservative activist in Washington to puppeteer the congressional "Super Committee" proceedings. Yesterday, the committee co-chairs announced that they failed to fulfill their mandate of forging a deficit reduction deal. All six Republican members of the Super Committee are signatories to Norquist's pledge, and the No Tax Man's GOP lackeys appear to have kept their promise to Norquist to reject any deal that included increased government revenue in the form of tax increases.

At first blush, Norquist's anti-tax zealotry looks like an extension of his professed philosophy of maximizing "freedom" by limiting the role of government--in this instance by advocating for the elimination of the funding it needs to function. We can have an honest debate about whether government programs increase or decrease individual freedom, but there is a much darker reality here. Norquist has spent his professional life using every means at his disposal to limit the democratic rights of his opponents (Norquist recently gloated that he "intend[s] to be part of the whole effort to crush the other team."). While our Founders promoted the concept of "one person, one vote" and believed in a republicanism that prioritized the public good, Norquist's vision of America is one where the government coddles multi-billion dollar corporations but tells those citizens who are the most vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Rather than listen uncritically to the "patriotic" platitudes offered by Norquist and other members of the Radical Right, I prefer to judge them by their actions. Norquist, in particular, has has no moral authority to lecture anybody about the proper role of democratic government--because he has no respect for the core principles that made this country great. Whether by physical force or political corruption, Norquist--who sits on the board of directors of the National Rifle Association (NRA)--has lived the NRA's mantra: "The guys with the guns make the rules."

For starters, he has a sordid history of promoting a vile brand of "democracy" abroad. During the 1980s, he supported anti-Communist movements even when "Freedom Fighters" were perpetrating human rights abuses against the very countrymen they were "liberating." Two of the organizations Norquist backed were UNITA and RENAMO. RENAMO has been accused of killing over one million civilians in Mozambique. UNITA employed child soldiers throughout the Angolan Civil War, including during the time that Norquist was a registered lobbyist for the organization. Norquist also lobbied for the interests of a number of African dictators in the United States, including Omar Bongo of Gabon, Pascal Lissouba of the Republic of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko of (then) Zaire, and France-Albert René of Seychelles. Norquist's firm also represented a Hamas and Hezbollah supporter now serving a 23-year prison sentence for his role in a terrorist plot. Norquist was candid about the anti-democratic character of these tyrants, even describing René as "a guy who preferred not to have elections for a number of years."

His domestic political affairs are equally disturbing. Norquist has a long history with criminal GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mark Salter, a top aide for Senator John McCain (R-AZ) aptly said, "By his own admission, Grover couldn't be any closer to Abramoff if they moved to Massachusetts and got married." When Abramoff was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy in 2006, it was revealed that Norquist used his tax-exempt ATR organization to help Abramoff funnel money from his clients to conservative causes (ATR kept a small cut of the funds). The Senate Finance Committee reported that ATR "appear[ed] to have perpetrated a fraud on other taxpayers" by "profit-seeking and private benefit behavior inconsistent with their tax-exempt status. And by virtue of the tax benefits, other taxpayers implicitly subsidized this behavior." Additionally, clients of Abramoff were directed to give Norquist's organization money. In an e-mail to colleagues, Abramoff wrote, "I spoke this evening with Grover. He said that, if [the Choctaw Indian tribe] want the taxpayer movement, including him, involved on this issue and anything else which will come up over the course of the year or so, they need to become a major player with ATR. He recommended that they make a $50,000 contribution to ATR." Between 1995 and 2002, the Mississippi Choctaw tribe donated $1.5 million to ATR.

Norquist has also worked assiduously to increase the influence wielded by corporate-backed lobbyists in Washington. In 1995, in the wake of the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, Norquist--along with then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (who has since been convicted of money laundering) and Jack Abramoff--founded The K Street Project. The goal of the project was to facilitate the hiring of Republicans at top lobbying firms, and then reward the firms by offering access to influential GOP officials. By 2003, Republican lobbyists held 33 of the 36 top-level lobbying positions in Washington. The explicit "pay-to-play" nature of the project was later made illegal, but the damage was done. So much for "one person, one vote"...

Norquist has also been active in suppressing the right of workers to organize. ATR has a number of "special projects," including the anti-labor Alliance for Worker Freedom (AWF) which seeks to "crush labor as a political entity." Teamster Magazine has described AWF as a corporation-backed "astroturf" group. Norquist has also backed anti-labor state ballot initiatives marketed as "paycheck protection."

It's easy to understand why Norquist finds himself at home on the National Rifle Association Board of Directors. The organization pays a lot of lip service to "freedom," even going so far as to call itself "the nation's oldest civil rights organization," but it's always willing to trample the freedom of others who get in its way. For example, the NRA had no problem pushing Congress to close the courts to lawsuits by victims of gun violence in order to protect its financiers in the gun industry. The NRA has also not hesitated to dismantle the presumption of innocence when it allows gun owners to shoot first and ask questions later.

From suppressing the democratic aspirations of millions of Africans to helping corporations fleece taxpayers to pushing worker/employer relations back to the Gilded Age, Norquist has proven by his actions that his brand of "freedom" is every bit as tainted as the NRA's. With the promise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" now becoming an impossible dream for most Americans, we can see where their vision is leading us. No one should equate Norquist and the NRA with the real values that have made this country a glowing beacon of individual liberty for the last 235 years: political equality, commitment to the rule of law, and pluralism.

This is the fourth in a series of articles I have written profiling the rogues gallery that makes up the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Learn more at www.MeetTheNRA.org.

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