Though Norquist claims to protect all tax credits, he seems to devote a great deal of his attention to some groups rather than others. A search on Norquist's foundation website shows countless action alerts to protest attempts by law-makers to shutter wasteful energy subsidies, including billions in tax credits to oil and gas companies. One post claims that removing nearly $100 billion in tax subsidies for oil companies amounts to a "tax hike on energy producers and families."
Disclosures reviewed by The Nation show that, from 2008 to 2011, the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for oil and gas companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil, gave $525,000 to Americans for Tax Reform.
It is difficult, from a public relations standpoint, for oil companies to defend their tax credits on the merits. Oil companies with billions in quarterly profits can deduct costs for drilling wells and receive "manufacturing" tax deductions for simply refining crude oil. Norquist's pledge (and his foundation's advocacy) transforms billions in taxpayer handouts into "tax cuts" that cannot be removed. In other words, Norquist is providing ideological cover for his benefactors in the oil industry and the rest of corporate America.
He developed his peculiar style of corporate advocacy in the 1980s. As Thomas Frank detailed in his book The Wrecking Crew, Norquist figured out early that he could leverage big business donors. Through a nonprofit called the United States of America Foundation, Norquist and his colleagues in the College Republicans would collect money from corporate interests in exchange for a promise to oppose efforts by campus-based Public Interest Research Groups (the consumer action groups better known as PIRGs). As these groups fought to enact regulations on polluters, for example, Norquist would solicit those same polluters to donate to his nonprofit, which would then do battle with the PIRG do-gooders.
He went on to work as a registered lobbyist. One of his first official gigs was a contract to represent France-Albert René, the leftist leader of the Seychelles, a small island nation off the east coast of Africa. In one of the first exposés of Norquist's coin-operated conservatism, Tucker Carlson, in a piece for The New Republic, called out the foreign influence peddling, referring to Norquist as just another "cash-addled, morally malleable lobbyist."
Norquist later started his own lobbying firm, Janus-Merritt Strategies, and signed up an elite roster of clients — including, most famously, Fannie Mae. In the late 1990s, Microsoft invited representatives of Americans for Tax Reform to travel to Washington State for a three-day presentation (which included tickets to a Mariners game as well as dinner and entertainment at Seattle's Teatro ZinZani). Two days after they returned, the foundation sent a letter to House Republicans urging them to cut deeper into the budget of the Justice Department's anti-trust division — the same unit then pursuing Microsoft in a high-stakes legal case. Microsoft, The Washington Post noted, had paid Norquist $40,000 as a registered lobbyist for the company.
The pattern repeats itself like clockwork. When Philip Morris paid Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist campaigned against cigarette taxes. When a cellphone lobbying group paid Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist campaigned against cellphone taxes.
Early in the Obama administration's first term, Norquist sent a letter to FedEx, demanding that the company back away from an anti-UPS website it hosted to fight off a measure that would enable FedEx employees to join a union. (UPS workers are unionized.) It was a surprisingly pro-union move for a conservative like Norquist, who has praised draconian efforts to curb organizing rights in states like Wisconsin. Yet it is less surprising given that UPS, through its charitable foundation, gave Americans for Tax Reform $25,000 a few months after he sent the letter.
The most sordid examples, however, come from the Senate investigation into Jack Abramoff's lobbying. As the Associated Press reported, one of Abramoff's clients, the Mississippi Choctaw tribe, worked out an arrangement in which Norquist would transfer $1.2 million in Choctaw money through Americans for Tax Reform to other Abramoff efforts. In exchange for laundering the money, Norquist kept a cut of $50,000 from two of the transfers. Somehow, Norquist emerged from the Abramoff scandal largely unscathed and more influential than ever.
In spite of all this, the press has been quick to designate Norquist a "movement" leader or an ideological purist — terms that merely enhance his prestige. Another term might be more accurate: corporate lobbyist.