WASHINGTON—At first glance, it would be hard to find two public figures who are more unlike in their outlooks than Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist. But Nader and Norquist and their followers agree on much more than the labels “liberal” for Nader and “conservative” for Norquist, might suggest. In general, both agree that the federal government fails to be responsive to the needs and wishes of ordinary people with its waste, secrecy, and alleged use of unconstitutional powers.
On Sept. 4 at a luncheon hosted by the National Press Club, the famed consumer advocate and the influential anti-tax activist called upon their respective supporters to get past the labels and form an alliance on issues in which there is agreement.
“Ralph Nader and Grover Norquist may not seem like natural allies, but throughout their careers, they have fought for a singular goal: good, responsive government,” said Myron Belkind, president of the National Press Club, who introduced the speakers.
The two men came to public attention in very different ways.
Nader founded Public Citizen in 1971 and became known for his advocacy for seat belts and consumer protections. Belkind noted that Nader long ago went beyond consumer protection issues to establishing “a network of citizen groups that have had major impact of tax reform, nuclear energy, and health and safety issues.”
Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, which opposes higher taxes at all levels of government. Belkind said that Norquist succeeded in getting 260 lawmakers to sign an anti-tax pledge in the 113th Congress—something that few, if any, progressives would support.
Nader acknowledged areas that progressives and conservatives disagree on: “reproductive rights, gun control, school prayer, constitutionally required balanced budget, taxes, and [government] regulations.”
However, Nader said there are huge areas of a fundamental nature “as well as substantive policies where there is a large left-right convergence majority in this country.” So, despite calling themselves conservatives, liberals, libertarians or progressives, tens of millions of Americans “agree on a whole host of issues,” he said.
Nader’s talk was a summary of his most recent book, “Unstoppable,” which has the subtitle, “The emerging left-right alliance to dismantle the corporate state.”
The book and his talk began with how a coalition of environmental and conservative groups opposed the Clinch River Reactor in Tennessee, in 1983. The Breeder Reactor already cost 1.3 billion before a tree had been cleared, and estimates of the total cost, such as the $8.8 billion from Congress’s General Accounting Office, were way over the official estimate of $400 million of 1970.
However, the project enjoyed the support of President Reagan, the well-connected, powerful Tennessee Republican Senator Howard Baker, and legions of lobbyists from the nuclear industry, Westinghouse and General Electric. Nevertheless, to the shock of many, the civic coalition triumphed and scuttled the project in a Senate vote that terminated further funding.
Nader also told the story about the frustrating time the auto companies were blocking the Department of Transportation from requiring air bags for motor vehicles, in 1985. The federal government purchased 40,000 or more autos annually at the time. Nader paid a visit to the General Services Administration’s chief, Gerald Carmen, whom Nader characterizes in “Unstoppable,” as an “arch anti-regulatory New Hampshire conservative.”
Nader told Carmen that if he required that new cars the government purchases have air bags, “it will reduce accidents, injuries, and claims and costs and lost work. And that appealed to him, in addition to the lifesaving aspect of it.” Nader wrote that all the auto companies, except Ford, opposed air bags, but the momentum to add the safety system couldn’t be stopped after the government’s first purchase contract. Finally, the Department of Transportation made air bags for drivers and front-seat passengers be standard equipment, and, as a result, “many lives were saved and injuries prevented.”
Had Nader regarded Carmen as only an unapproachable Reagan conservative, he would never have made the trip to GSA.
A couple of areas that Nader touched up where he there has been liberal and conservative convergence is in the area of civil liberties, “the protection of privacy, to not engage in dragnet snooping,” and the “serious intrusions of the USA Patriot Act against freedom and privacy,” discussed in his book.
“We can make some progress in limiting the abuse of government snooping, the government’s mega data collection, and making sure that our civil liberties are taken seriously, and that almost only happens in a left-right coalition.”
Nader said, “Sometimes I think half of what the government does is shovel out subsidies, handouts, giveaways, economic privileges in the marketplace, and bailouts, and this is called crony capitalism by the right. It is called corporate welfare by us. That is a huge slice of the federal budget.”
Nader explains in his book that conservatives believe it is unfair to taxpayers when crony capitalism distorts free markets, picking winners rather. And it hurts small business. Liberals see corporate welfare as “generally giving away valuable public assets,” such as the minerals and forests on public lands and government research, “without payment or conditions in the public interest.”
Norquist said, “The issue of corporate welfare is one that we can agree on. We’ve worked together on this many years ago when [Congressman] John Kasich [currently, Ohio governor] was taking the lead in coming up with a series of suggestions that both groups on the right and left could agree on. Government ought not be stealing people’s money and handing it to somebody else, period.”
‘Right on Crime’
Nader praised the work that Norquist and Republican Newt Gingrich have done with progressive groups on mandatory prison sentences, what Norquist calls, “Right on Crime.”
Norquist said, “Do we really need to keep 75-year-old former bank robbers in prison for the rest of their lives? It cost $50,000 to put somebody in prison for one year in California, $25,000 in Florida. … You are disrupting communities, breaking up families, taking the breadwinner out, you’re making it difficult for people to move forward. And I am tough on crime. … I think some people should be in prison all their lives, but not the two million we got now.”
Another point Nader made that he said Norquist agrees on, was the budgetary process at the Department of Defense. He thinks it’s wrong that the Pentagon can “automatically get a huge budget through Congress without following normal appropriation committee procedures,” unlike the way in which in Iraq and Afghan wars were budgeted. Nader said there is a Left-Right coalition that objects to the Pentagon’s $800 billion unaudited budget every year.
“Not the way a business would run it. That is why you lose $9 billion a year, $6 billion there…. There’s no accounting,” he said.
Norquist also eyes the Pentagon’s budget priorities with skepticism. He concedes it’s a dangerous world out there and we need a strong national defense.
“But you don’t have to waste money. There’s a new piece of legislation that I think is very intriguing, by Congressman Ken Calvert, a Republican from California, that will through attrition reduce the number of civilian employees at the Pentagon by 100,000. The budget experts say you can cheerfully do 200,000 and still have a strong and robust national defense.”
Norquist said that there must be efforts to make the Pentagon more efficient because of the sequester. “Those people who want more tanks had better figure out how to reform the procurement system,” he said.