On Tuesday, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), in a speech delivered on the floor of the House, Wolf excoriated anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and author of that organization’s anti-tax pledge. The group, founded in 1985 at the request of president Ronald Reagan, has spent more than two-and-a-half decades pushing GOP politicians to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which asks them to oppose “any and all tax increases.” Yet Wolf made it clear that taxes were not the issue. It was Norquist’s association with “a number of unsavory people and groups out of the mainstream” that formed the foundation of his criticism.
“My issue is not with ATR’s goal of keeping taxes low,” Wolf contended.
“Like Ronald Reagan said, and I believe, ‘the problem is not that people are taxed too little, the problem is that government spends too much.’ I want to be perfectly clear: I do not support raising taxes on the American people. My concern is with the other individuals, groups, and causes with whom Mr. Norquist is associated that have nothing to do with keeping taxes low.”
Who are those groups and individuals? Wolf began by illuminating Norquist’s association with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials in 2006. Abramoff, who received a 70-month sentence in a Florida fraud conviction, was given an additional 48 months in September of 2008. Aside from the fallout that snared Congressman Robert Ney and seven other people, Abramoff had drawn attention to himself largely due to the fact that he and his partner took in $82 million from Indian tribes in the casino business. Abramoff’s relationship to Norquist? “Mr. Abramoff essentially laundered money through ATR and Mr. Norquist knew it,” Wolf contended.
Next up was Mr. Norquist’s association with Islamic terrorist financiers. They included Abdurahman Alamoudi, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison in 2004 for his role in a plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Alamoudi pleaded guilty to illegally moving $1 million in cash from Libya to pay conspirators in the plot. Prior to his conviction, Alamoudi had headed the American Muslim Council, which met with senior officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations to promote Muslim political causes. Wolf then referred to terrorist sympathizer Sami Al-Arian, who was sentenced to 57 months in prison in 2006 after pleading guilty to conspiring to perform services for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). The PIJ is a designated terrorist organization, which has conducted several attacks against Israel, and remains dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State. Norquist was “an outspoken supporter of Al-Arian’s effort to end the use of classified evidence in terror trials,” Wolf noted.
Mr. Wolf then spoke about Mr. Norquist’s lobbying on behalf of mortgage giant Fannie Mae. He noted that even as Norquist was running ATR, he founded the lobbying firm of of Janus-Meritt Strategies with partner David Hossein Safavian. Safavian, former chief of staff of the General Services Administration (GSA), was ensnared in the Abramoff scandal and sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2006. That conviction was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which ordered a new trial. In 2008, Mr. Safavian was once again convicted. In 2000, Janus-Merit received $120,000 in lobbying fees from Fannie Mae, which disclosure records reveal was an effort to protect the home ownership tax credit. Many conservatives contend that credit was a key factor contributing to the housing bubble and the subsequent bust.
Mr. Norquist’s effort on behalf of the Internet gambling industry was Rep. Wolf’s next target. Once again, the illegal machinations of Jack Abramoff come into the picture. In 2000, in a successful effort to defeat the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, Abraham spread a lot of money around to various entities on behalf his lobbying client, eLottery Inc. One of his allies in that campaign was Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. According to the Washington Post, Abramoff used two conduits to get Reed money for his help: Grover Norquist’s American for Tax Reform, which received a $160,000 check, and took $10,000 for itself; and the Faith and Family Alliance, which passed on the remaining $150,000 to Mr. Reed’s company, Century Strategies.
Mr. Wolf then challenged Mr. Norquist’s advocacy on behalf of moving Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the United States, including 9⁄11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In 2009, Norquist was part of a group aiming to undermine Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s intention to close Gitmo and move terrorist inmates to a prison facility in Thompson, Illinois. A joint statement prepared by the Constitution Project, David Keene (founder of the American Conservative Union), former representative and presidential candidate Bob Barr and Norquist, urged Congress to “preserve national security without resorting to sweeping and radical departures from an American constitutional tradition that has served us effectively for over two centuries,” adding that “[C]ivilian federal courts are the proper forum for terrorism cases.” The statement went on to say that the “federal prison system has proven itself fully capable of safely holding literally hundreds of convicted terrorists with no threat or danger to the surrounding community,” and that the “scaremongering about these issues should stop.” The efforts were for naught. In a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep Gitmo open, and the Obama administration abandoned its plans to try terrorists in civilian courts.
Mr. Wolf also noted several other questionable activities by Mr. Norquist, including his use of ATR to drum up support for the controversial mosque near Ground Zero; his donor lists, which included a $4.3 million contribution from Richard ‘Dickie’ Scruggs, a Democratic Mississippi trial lawyer sentenced to five years in prison in 2008 for attempted bribery of a judge; and his gratuitous insults of Republicans, including two former presidents, Bush 41 and 43, as well as presidential candidate and war hero Bob Dole.
“I believe many people were unaware of these troubling connections that I have spoken about,” Wolf continued. “I was surprised when this information came to my attention. I also understand that some may not agree with what I have said in this speech. But as William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian and abolitionist, famously told his colleagues, ‘Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.’”
Wolf then cited an editorial written by Barbara Shelly for the Kansas City Star on July 11, 2011:
“Washington, we know, is a planet unto itself. But here in the heartland, it’s surreal to watch an unelected guy with a broken ethical compass bring the capital to a standstill and thwart the spirit of compromise that the majority of Americans say they want. Who elected Grover Norquist? He did, that’s who. And Washington’s political class has not the shame, nor the spine, to send him packing.”
Frank Wolf is apparently attempting to do just that. But it remains to be seen if this speech will have the desired effect. Norquist responded by calling Wolf’s comments “silly and dishonest” further claiming the Congressman is “frustrated.”
Yet Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who has publicly battled with Norquist this year over what constitutes a tax increase, largely concurred with Wolf’s assessment. “Rep. Wolf’s comments overstated Norquist’s influence but accurately reflect the views of the vast majority of free-market conservatives on tax policy,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said in response to a request for comment. “Fortunately, the vast majority of tax-reform advocates already share Dr. Coburn’s view that tax earmarks for Hollywood movie producers and ethanol blenders are spending programs masquerading as tax breaks.”
The bigger political picture? “The Republicans need maneuvering room on taxes,” said James Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. “This is a nuclear bomb on the guy who is forcing everybody to not compromise. It’s likely the House leadership knew about this ahead of time,” he added.
In Washington, D.C., a city where nothing seems to happen “by accident,” this may be the Republicans’ initial gambit with respect to the debt reduction talks, in which a compromise must be reached by Thanksgiving to avoid automatic triggers.
Rep. Wolf alluded to that reality. “The problem in the country is not with the people. The problem in the country is Washington. The system is broken because we have fallen prey to ideologues that have put us in a straight jacket and threaten our futures. I believe we can and will break free because the seriousness of the times demands it,” he contended. “I am one who believes America’s greatest days are still ahead. All we have to do is recover that sense of virtue and duty, and be bold and brave enough to stand up and speak the truth and be true to our conscience.”
In the minds of most Americans, the words “conscience” and “Congress” have become mutually exclusive. Frank Wolf seems to understand that. It remains to be seen how many of his colleagues on either side of the aisle reach a similar conclusion.