As head of Americans for Tax Reform since 1986, Grover Norquist has transformed a single issue - preventing tax hikes - into one of the key platforms of the Republican Party. As Steve Kroft reports, his biggest coup was getting more than 270 members of Congress, and nearly all of the 2012 Republican presidential primary candidates, to sign a pledge promising never to vote to raise taxes. But some opponents say the pledge may be hindering a solution to America's debt crisis.
The following is a script of "The Pledge" which aired on Nov. 20, 2011. Steve Kroft is correspondent, Frank Devine, producer.
The Joint Congressional Committee on Deficit Reduction has just three days to reach a deal eliminating at least $1.2 trillion from the nation's debt using some combination of cutting spending and raising taxes.
The person at the heart of those negotiations - and some would say the person responsible for the deadlock - is neither a member of Congress nor the holder of any public office. He is a lobbyist and a conservative activist named Grover Norquist who, over the years, has gotten virtually every Republican congressman and senator to sign an oath called "The Pledge." It's a promise that they will never, under any circumstances, vote to raise taxes on anyone. And so far Grover Norquist has held them to it, controlling 279 votes, including the speaker of the House, the Senate minority leader and all six Republican members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.
Steve Kroft: A lot of people think you're the most powerful man in Washington.
Grover Norquist: The tax issue is the most powerful issue in American politics going back to the Tea Party. People say, 'Oh, Grover Norquist has power.' No. Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform focus on the tax issue. The tax issue is a powerful issue.
Grover Norquist is trying to be modest. Since creating Americans for Tax Reform at Ronald Reagan's behest back in 1985, Norquist has been responsible, more than anyone else, for rewriting the dogma of the Republican Party.
Norquist: The Republicans won't raise your taxes. We haven't had a Republican vote for an income tax increase since 1990.
Kroft: And this was your doing?
Norquist: I helped. Yeah.
It began with the simple idea of getting Republicans all over the country to sign an oath called the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," promising their constituents that they would never, ever vote for anything that would make their taxes go up.
[Norquist: This is Speaker Gingrich's tax pledge back in 1998...]
And once they sign the pledge, Grover Norquist never forgets. The more signatures he's collected, the more his influence has grown.
Norquist: I think to win a Republican primary-- It is difficult to imagine somebody winning a primary without taking the pledge.
The signatories not only include more than 270 members of Congress, but all of the Republican presidential candidates, with the lone exception of Jon Huntsman.
All that leverage has made Norquist's Wednesday breakfast meetings a must-attend event for Republican operatives fortunate enough to get an invitation. David Keene, the president of the National Rifle Association, was there the day we attended along with conservative columnist John Fund.
John Fund: This is the Grand Central station of the conservative movement.
We were told it was the first time cameras have ever been allowed into the weekly off-the-record strategy session.
[Steve Law (American Crossroads): Our approach is going to be to just simply drill away every day.]
Norquist: It's people from Capitol Hill, House and Senate, think tanks, Tea Party groups, business groups. Everybody who wants the government to be smaller and everybody who wants the government to leave them alone.
[Norquist (at Seattle Tea Party event): I intend to win. I intend to be part of the whole effort to crush the other team.]
Grover Norquist has been called both the "dark wizard of the right's anti-tax cult" and "the single most effective conservative activist in the country." He is a libertarian ideologue who believes that Washington is controlling our lives through the taxes it raises to fund big government. And he's said that he wants to shrink it to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub.
Kroft: You wanna drown it in the bathtub?