Taxpayer Protection Pledge Works, Thanks to Americans for Tax Reform

Published January 23, 2020

Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) was founded by Grover Norquist, its president,  in 1985 at the request of President Ronald Reagan as the grassroots-organizing effort supporting the Reagan agenda. The organization’s name comes from what became the historic Tax Reform Act of 1986.

ATR is known for the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, policy advocacy at the state and federal levels, and its wide-ranging coalition-building efforts.

Politicians Promise

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge was originally designed to answer a concern the 1986 tax reform legislation could become a tax hike despite Reagan’s insistence it be at worst revenue-neutral. Norquist’s answer was to ask all members of Congress to sign a public, written commitment to “oppose and vote against” any net tax hike. One hundred congressmen and 20 senators signed the pledge. The 1986 tax reform package—a net $60 billion cut—fulfilled that promise, and the pledge was widely viewed as key to its success.

President George H.W. Bush’s loss after he broke  the pledge in 1990 proved it had teeth. His “deal” with Congress raised taxes and promised to reduce spending by two dollars for every dollar of tax increase. As ATR warned, the tax hikes were real but spending increased even faster.

Since then, opposing tax hikes has been both good policy and good politics, especially beginning with the election of 1994, when most Republicans signed the pledge.

The pledge held during the budget fights of 2011 to 2013 when President Barack Obama tried in vain to entice pledge signers to abandon their commitment. Strong defense during those fights set the stage for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. ATR continues to highlight the success of that reform in delivering historic levels of growth and employment.

Tax-Increasing Obamacare

The tax issue has placed ATR at the center of other debates. Government’s increasing entanglement in health care has meant health care policy is largely tax policy. Norquist famously referred to Obamacare as a “tax increase with a stethoscope stapled to it.”

Similarly, ATR has focused on the costs to taxpayers of regulations, particularly in sectors such as energy, tech, and telecom. The organization has also promoted personal-liberty issues such as criminal justice reform.

Building Coalitions

ATR is widely known for coalition-building in the center-right community. Since 1993, ATR has organized the weekly “Wednesday Meeting” of center-right activists, legislators, key staff, the business community, and conservative leaders in Washington, D.C. In this 90-minute meeting, 30 participants present for just three minutes each about what they and their organizations are doing. From this jumping-off point, informal alliances form.

The meeting has grown to 150 weekly participants, and the model proved so successful that today there are 50 similar meetings in 45 states and in 28 countries around the world.

ATR continues to grow and advocate for all taxpayers at the federal and state levels, consciously developing alliances across the center-right community and throughout the “leave us alone” coalition.

Chris Butler ([email protected]) is executive director of Americans for Tax Reform.