Since 1986, conservative political activist Grover Norquist has asked candidates and lawmakers to sign a pledge promising not to raise taxes.
On its own, the pledge is a powerful tool, with some experts citing President George H.W. Bush's decision to sign and subsequently break the anti-tax pledge as a major reason for his re-election defeat in 1992.
And the pledge – signed by nearly every Republican in the current Congress – has also been credited with creating the stalemate in deficit reduction legislation being crafted by a special congressional committee. The group of 12 lawmakers – six Democrats and six Republicans – has until Thanksgiving to draft a plan but has been stuck at an impasse around potential tax increases for weeks.
That's despite polls showing most Americans support a mix of spending cuts and tax increases on the super-wealthy to reduce the deficit.
But Norquist's pledge, which he administers on behalf of his group Americans for Tax Reform, could be even stronger now than ever, campaign finance experts say. The recent Supreme Court ruling known as "Citizens United" allows for unlimited campaign spending by certain groups, providing ATR and Norquist with the opportunity to make sure voters know who's keeping to the pledge and who's broken it.
"I'm sure he has the ability to basically spend whatever he wants so certainly right now from that respect he could arguably be more influential than ever," says Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan D.C.-based group that supports campaign finance reform.
According to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, Norquist's group, which does not have to disclose its donors, spent about $4.1 million opposing candidates in the 2010 mid-term election. Most of the money was spent against Democrats, but about $332,000 was spent opposing Republicans.
While $4 million is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to campaign spending, Boyle says it can have an outsized influence.
"He doesn't necessarily have to spend the money, just the threat of someone who is well-funded like he is being able to come in and spend a lot of money is a huge incentive and scares the bejesus out of candidates and members of Congress," she says. "And people respond to that threat."
Some Republicans have recently tried to distance themselves from the pledge and Norquist. Rep. Steven LaTourette, an Ohio Republican, told The Hill last week he did not feel bound to the pledge, which he signed in 1994 but not since, even though the request comes from Norquist every two years.
Other Republicans have said they would be willing to vote for tax reforms that result in increased revenues, but lawmakers have been wary about speaking publicly about specifics until the deficit reduction committee finishes its work.
Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner called Norquist "some random person" in an attempt to downplay his role in deficit negotiations.
Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard University and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, says a debate earlier this year highlighted how influential Norquist is. The anti-tax crusader determined that a Republican-backed measure to eliminate ethanol subsidies would amount to a tax increase, causing heartburn for GOP lawmakers seeking to curtail government spending.
"This is what (Republican Sen.) Tom Coburn said on the floor of the Senate—it's absurd to think that the government deciding to no longer subsidize a business is a tax increase," Lessig says.
In an October floor speech, Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who has not signed the pledge, railed against Norquist.
"I would also submit that Mr. Norquist's pledge—which candidates sign to indicate their opposition to tax increases—has morphed into a powerful mechanism for Mr. Norquist to ensure that favored tax earmarks to select industries remain untouched, thus preventing comprehensive tax reform," he said.
Lessig says campaign finance reforms that limit outside spending would help to diminish Norquist—and other lobbyists'—ability to dictate public policy.
"He has exaggerated power because of the way in which money plays into politics," Lessig says.
With time running out for politicians caught between maintaining their pledge and satisfying the public's demands for a deficit deal, Boyle says it's not at all clear how it will end.
"This is certainly one of the biggest, if not the biggest, litmus tests in the Republican Party and it has been a powerful tool and I don't know how this plays out," she says. "But we're obviously seeing a lot of economic and political turmoil in the country right now and it will be interesting to see how that fairs."
A spokesman for Americans for Tax Reform did not return a request for comment.