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GOP Caught In A Gamble

This column was written by Ari Berman.
Grover Norquist is known as a brilliantly effective strategist and ideologue, a Reagan Revolutionary who more than anyone deserves credit for turning Washington, DC into a one-party town. From his perch at Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), his weekly Wednesday meetings with conservative activists and his ruthlessly successful K Street Project, Norquist has created a new Republican political establishment. A Nation profile of Norquist in 2001 dubbed him "the managing director of the hard-core right in Washington." Norquist has been the go-to-guy on virtually every right-wing priority, from tax cuts to Social Security privatization, holding the GOP's big business and Christian conservative constituencies together.

Now, the man who once bragged of wanting to "cut government in half" and "drown it in the bathtub" is up to his neck in hot water because of ties to uberlobbyist Jack Abramoff. Newly released emails from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee confirm Norquist's role in helping Abramoff milk millions from Indian tribes, in one of the most extravagant corruption scandals to reach the Capitol in decades.


Over the course of several years, Abramoff and fellow lobbyist Michael Scanlon charged the Choctaw Indian Tribe of Mississippi $7.7 million for lobbying services directed against rival gambling opportunities in neighboring Alabama. In 1999, Norquist approached Abramoff about getting involved, citing "a $75k hole in my budget from last year." The Choctaws gave ATR $1.5 million, which Norquist funneled to the Alabama Christian Coalition and Citizens Against Legalized Lottery, both of whom opposed a proposal to create a state lottery. Neither group was allowed to accept casino money, so Norquist, with the help of former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, kept the money's source secret. The state lottery and video poker machine initiatives were defeated in 1999 and 2000. Norquist subsequently invited tribal groups to meet Bush at the White House for discussions on tax policy.

Since the Senate investigation commenced, Norquist has predictably tried to distance himself from Abramoff. "There's no business or financial relationship," Norquist told the New York Times, even though Abramoff frequently billed Norquist, dropped his name to prospective tribes and knew him since their College Republicans days. After Norquist refused to turn over his ATR records for six months, the Senate issued a subpoena. Though Norquist denounces the inquiry as a political stunt, committee chairman John McCain has suggested the Justice Department charge Abramoff and Scanlon with mail, wire and tax fraud. The charges could also torpedo Ralph Reed's run for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Norquist seems to have been the only one to get off largely unscathed, claiming he's "delighted with the way things turned out."

Yet Norquist's travails may not be over. "There's never been a shortage of blowhards and bores in this town," says McCain assistant Mark Salter. "I'm sure Grover is comfortable in their crowded ranks, but that hardly merits the attention he craves... Most Reagan revolutionaries came to Washington to do something more patriotic than rip off Indian tribes."

Democrats would do well to turn Grover Norquist into a household name.
By Ari Berman
Reprinted with permission from The Nation