Fact Checker: Grover Norquist's misleading accounting of recent history

Nov 28, 2011

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, has been in the news lately because Democrats charge (without much evidence) that he is single-handedly responsible for the collapse of the debt supercommittee because Republicans are afraid of violating his no-new-taxes pledge.

Chat with fact checker Glenn Kessler about why he gave Norquist three out of four Pinocchios for his misleading accounting of recent history.

Read: Grover Norquist: a misleading accounting of recent history

Lots of questions, so let's get to them. But first I want to mention that some readers last week took me to task for poking fun at Herman Cain's concerns about the mountains in Iran possibly thwarting an attack on its nuclear facilities.  Perhaps I was a bit too quick off the mark (that's the problem with a chat format.)

One reader send along an interesting report by the Institute for Science and International Security, which noted:

"Commercial satellite imagery ... indicates that Iran is building a tunnel facility inside a mountain about two kilometers south of the Natanz uranium enrichment complex.  The construction activity is taking place in the closest mountainous area to the Natanz site, strongly suggesting that the site is affiliated with Natanz.


"Iran earlier built a tunnel complex near the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility to protect a range of nuclear-related equipment and materials and natural uranium hexafluoride from that facility.  Iran may be constructing a similar facility near Natanz, fearing that the underground halls at Natanz are vulnerable to destruction by military attack.  Such a tunnel facility inside a mountain would offer excellent protection from an aerial attack.  This new facility would be ideal for safely storing nuclear items, including centrifuge manufacturing and assembly equipment, centrifuge components, natural uranium, and low enriched uranium."

So while Cain could have phrased his answer better, he may have had a point. So I withdraw my earlier comment. Thanks to the readers who questioned me about this statement. 

Your article, although objective in tone and argument, seems a to be a pretty clear condemnation of much of the verbal ammunition that not just Norquist but many others in the small government faction have been using. I am surprised in reading your article that Norquist did not earn four Pinoccios: was there much deliberation on your part, or was three a pretty clear decision?

I think it was clear it was three. You really have to be over the top to say it was four. In the case of Reagan, I recall he sometimes felt he did not get as much in spending cuts as he hoped for. (That was at the time; as i point out, the picture looks different when placed into context and adjusted for inflation and the like.) In the case of the stimulus, as I noted it is technically correct that there are now fewer jobs than when the stimulus was passed. And so forth. In other words, his claims are not made completely out of whole cloth, but they are misleading and lacking context. 

Was Sen. Toomey's proposal of (allegedly) $300 billion in tax revenue increases (over 10 years) ever scored by the CBO? I'm highly suspicious that whatever tax loopholes were closed were probably overwhelmed by the companion proposal to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

I don't recall that it was scored--and a quick search does not find that it was. (Readers, correct me if you think I am wrong.) The left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report that makes the same point that you raised. They dig into the numbers quite closely, if you are interested. 

Glenn, One thing you did not address in your post is the idea Norquist put forward that the economy shrinks with tax rate increases. Do you think the 1990s offer a counter example to this with the growth that followed shortly after the H.W. Bush tax increases?

Yes, that is certainly a counter example, as is the growth that exploded after Clinton raised taxes.

Both sides make claims about the impact of tax cuts and tax increases, but it really is not so simple when economic theory hits the real world.  Clinton raised taxes, but no one anticipated the impact the computer revolution (and the runup in stock prices of computer companies) would have on the economy or government revenues. 

Why does no one call Norquist on two major points: first, his contention that Americans don't want higher taxes. Every poll out there indicates irrevocably that 3 out of 4 Americans favor raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. So his ithat he's just fighting for what Americans want is bogus. Second, his contention that higher marginal rates inhibit economic growth. History shows, specifically in the 50's and the 90's, two decades that demonstrated unprecedented economic growth in the history of the world, literally, marginal rates were high. In the 90's, the 1993 Economic Act raised rates, set us on a path to balancing the budget and spurred the economy to create 22 million jobs, which dwarfed the job creation in the George W. Bush era, when tax rates were lowered. Again, no one call Norquist on this. Why?

I would quibble with the idea that the 1993 economic act directly led to the creation of 22 million jobs (see answer just above.) There are many, many factors that affect the economy and a single congressional act is just part of the recipe. Still, you can have a good laugh if you go back and read all the gloom and doom predicted at the time Clinton's budget bill passed without a single GOP vote.

As for why the TV hosts do not call Norquist on his assertions, that I cannot answer. 

I put this in the comments section, but I'd like your comment on it - "Raising taxes slows the economy. Raising taxes kills jobs." That's the real statement you should be fact checking. Norquist would have you believe that tax increases are always followed by an increase in unemployment rates. And lowering tax rates is always followed by a decrease in unemployment rates. I strongly suspect that this concept is simply not correct. And it's something Norquist (and the Republican party) hammers constantly. Any fact checking or empirical evidence on that statement Norquist gave?

Again, there is economic theory and reality. In theory, a higher tax could mean a business owner decided not to hire an additional person. But then you also have to look at what that revenue is used for. Is it invested in another part of the economy (ie, to buy military jets)? That could lead to an additional job being added someplace else. Norquist treats it as a zero sum game and most economists would say that in all such government-engineered transfers, there are winners and losers. 

As I said in the column, I try not to fact check political philosophies. He clearly believes this to be the case, and that's fine. But most economists would take a more nuanced view.

I find your argument that the job losses were "technical". They were real. There were fewer at the end than at the outset of the stimulus effort. Arguing that there was a lag of further job losses seems a stretch to me. A question to ask is if the stimulus was such a promising effort why the markets did not immediately recognize that as such and respond accordingly.

The question is where you begin the stimulus effort. Does it start right after it passed? I don't think that is right, even if you believe the markets react immediately. 

I have proposed a simple solution: start counting job gains and losses from the official end of the recession (June 2009), as decided by the National Bureau of Economic Research. That gives the stimulus a few months to start kicking in, and also does not pollute the figures with the lingering impact of the recession.

If you do that, they still won't be throwing any victory parties at the White House. Even under that metric, Obama still has the worst job record of any modern president. 

I keep hearing people blame either the President or commission members for the failure of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. I was sick at the time that it broke down, and trying to figure out where the truth is in this issue hasn't been easy. Who's telling the truth? Was it the President, or was it lack of votes? Why wasn't it adopted?

No one has clean hands on this. Recall that Obama did nothing to support Simpson-Bowles when it came out. And Republican lawmakers have not wanted to accept the Simpson-Bowles recommendations on higher taxes. 

Does Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge undermine our democracy? Secondly, is this pledge asking our public servants (elected officials) to serve two masters, namely the American people, and Grover Norquist? Lastly, our elected officials are required to take an oath of office. Does the anti-tax pledge take precedence over that oath of office?

I got to know Grover Norquist well when I covered tax policy. (And I got to know his wife, an advocate for Palestinian causes, when I covered diplomacy.) I don't think people should blame Norquist for this state of affairs. He's a skilled and effective advocate for his cause who happened to come up with a brilliant way of making politicians stick to their pledges.

Rather than be angry at Norquist, aim your ire at the politicians who sign such pledges (no matter what they are) and then do not have the courage to admit they were wrong to have signed it in the first place. Clearly an oath of office trumps any such pledge. 

Thanks for all of the good questions. I need to get back to work! Please send me your suggestions for fact checks to factchecker@washpost.com

In This Chat
Glenn Kessler
Glenn Kessler is an acclaimed diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and has been recipient of numerous awards, including two shared Pulitzer Prizes. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he has reported from dozens of countries and also has covered the White House and Congress. Kessler is the author of The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. He is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and lives in McLean, Virginia.
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