fresh voices from the front lines of change







More than half of all Americans oppose the GOP tax bill. Regardless, Republicans in Congress are rushing to reconcile and vote on the legislation this week. The bill is packed with billions of dollars of tax cuts for wealthy donors and corporations, and promises to raise the deficit by more than $1 trillion. Over the weekend, angry people protested. Don’t expect them to quiet down anytime soon.

Sarah Jaffe spoke with Sarah Chaisson-Warner and Jessica Juarez Scruggs of People’s Action on Monday about the all-hands-on-deck last-minute efforts to stop the tax bill and their plans for what to do next if it passes. People’s Action is a national network of grass-roots organizations that fights for racial, economic and gender justice.

Sarah Jaffe: It is the down-to-the-wire moment for stopping the tax bill. What were your groups up to over the weekend?

Sarah Chaisson-Warner: Maine People’s Alliance held a large march in Kittery, Maine through a snowstorm — people committed to showing Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) that they oppose this bill, that this tax scam bill does nothing to help their communities, their families, and all it does is support the needs and the interests of the wealthy and big corporations.

We also had events in West Virginia, where our affiliate and some of their allies held a rally and a banner drop and also sang Christmas carols outside the office of Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV). The Christmas carol lyrics were shifted and changed to reflect the sad state of the tax scam bill. (“We wish for a better tax bill, we wish for a better tax bill, we wish for a better tax bill, and effective health care…”)

And going forward, we’re continuing to generate calls across the country to members of Congress to show our opposition to this bill. Over the last three weeks affiliates of People’s Action across the country have held 53 actions in the field, with people who are standing up to say “We will not stand for this tax scam, this is not what we want, this is not what will help our communities, our economy, or our country.” We are literally everywhere, we are in the streets, we are in the papers, we are on the phones, we are doing everything that we can to raise and mobilize the voices of people across the country who say “no” to this.

Jessica Juarez Scruggs: They have changed the bill a bit around the edges, but it is still a massive transfer of wealth to billionaires and a few multimillionaires. And it is a transfer of wealth away from working-class folks and the middle class toward the richest of the rich. So, the fundamentals have not changed. I think we are seeing the one thing the GOP can still all get behind, which is giving money to the wealthy. I don’t want for a second to say we are throwing in the towel and allowing this to happen. There are people camped out in front of offices in our network all across the country. We have organizers chasing congresspeople down on planes. We are not about to sit down and allow this to happen without our voices registering, but stopping this bill has been a tough task from the beginning.

SJ: Do you have a sense of how quickly things are moving on this and who is potentially flippable?

SCW: We’re still working to influence some of our targets in the Senate and the House. We do anticipate that they will probably vote this week, Tuesday or Wednesday, so it’s coming up quickly. In the Senate we did hear over the weekend that Sen. Corker (R-TN) had shifted his vote, although that does not mean that the people of Tennessee will stay home this week. In Nashville, our affiliate is working with some of their allies, as we speak, to plan actions calling attention to that flip of Sen. Corker’s vote. Our affiliate in Maine continues to work hard on Sen. Collins, and we know that there are many House members who don’t support this bill or have some reservations about it. There are members who are deeply concerned about the repeal of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

SJ: I think most people don’t actually understand what the individual mandate does and how that helps hold together the patchwork that is the Affordable Care Act.

JJS: The Affordable Care Act has always been a compromise to get us closer to more people covered. The individual mandate requires that everybody has health insurance and imposes a tax penalty if you don’t have insurance. When people are guaranteed the ability to get health care and cannot be denied because of a pre-existing condition, it gives rise to the concern that people will only get health care when they find out they are sick. If healthy people — especially healthy young people — don’t get health care coverage, then the whole system of the insurance market that we have starts to unravel a little bit. (Healthy people need to be in the insurance pool to help down insurance premiums for sicker people.)

SCW: We also have members who have concerns about the SALT provision, and others who are just a little uncomfortable with the bill and how quickly it’s moved, and the cost of the bill.

So we will continue to work in largely Republican districts this week; and should they vote on the bill this week our affiliates are ramping up for rapid response. And again, if they vote — if they pass this bill — it will not be quiet in the states. People are angry about this. No one wants this bill to pass — you see it in the polls. We will be out in the streets, and in the news and everywhere else showing members of Congress that this was the wrong decision.

SJ: Of course, next year is going to be an election year for a lot of these people in Congress and we’re already hearing some declarations from some fairly prominent members — there are even rumors that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) might not run for re-election. Perhaps they know that if they pass this they are going to pay a price at the ballot box.

SCW: Absolutely. There is a political price to be paid for this. People across the country, when they went into the voting booth, did not vote for more tax breaks for the rich and big corporations. When members who vote for this bill come back to their constituencies and their states and their localities, they are going to have to meet with people, and they’re going to have to stand by what they did. People won’t forget this.

We’ve been so impressed by the magnitude and the excitement of people to stand up for themselves, to stand up for their neighbors, to stand up for their family members and their community to say no to policies that are just plain wrong.

JJS: People are really, really concerned about giving massive tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations when corporate tax breaks are at an all-time high and the wealth gap is at an all-time high. People are really concerned that this is the first shoe to drop. We all know that this has been achieved by budget magic and the way they are planning to pay for this is with cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — the programs that our folks depend on to stay alive and keep their families healthy. We are concerned about this being rushed through, and we are really concerned about what it means for our communities.

SCW: Our work in the field over the next year will be to help educate people on the impact of this tax scam bill should it go through, who voted for this bill, and why they made the wrong decision. We will certainly be working on accountability over the next year.

JJS: The decision of New York, New Jersey and California Republicans to support this conference bill that reduces local tax exemptions — they haven’t completely done away with them, but they are reduced, and that is going to hurt a lot of their constituents. That is not a great idea if you want to get re-elected, but they have decided that the interests of their megadonors are more important than the interests of the communities they serve, so they are going with it.

SJ: I think one of the things about this bill is that this is not just a massive tax break for billionaires; it actually raises taxes on working people. And that seems like a bold move for a quite unpopular party and a quite unpopular president to make a point of making this bill even more unpopular than it needs to be.

JJS: Yes. I think they have been scraping wherever they can to get the revenue they need to pay for some of these massive giveaways. Like the pass-through, which is a deduction allowing the first 20 percent of income from a pass-through company to be essentially tax-free. This is something that is only going to benefit the very, very wealthy; it is laser-targeted for real estate developers. Maybe it is a special favor to the president. But to get the money to pay for those cuts and still stay under the $1.5 trillion line, they really have to go through the middle class. It is the only way to raise the revenue — to cut us off at the knees.

SJ: What’s been surprising to you about the last year in the resistance, in the organizing, in the fighting back that you’re doing on the ground?

SCW: We’ve had some good surprises and we’ve had some not-so-good surprises this year. We’ve been so impressed by the magnitude and the excitement of people to stand up for themselves, to stand up for their neighbors, to stand up for their family members and their community to say no to policies that are just plain wrong on so many levels. We’ve been impressed by how much vigor there has been in states and in communities across the country. We saw that beginning in January when members from Illinois and Wisconsin got together to hold a rally in a massive blizzard in Wisconsin at Paul Ryan’s office to say no to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

And now with the blizzard in Maine yesterday, we have blizzards bookending our field actions. So just how long and how motivated people are to continue the resistance has been a really wonderful surprise.

On the negative side — frankly, I’ve been incredibly surprised that this Congress has let funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program expire. This is a program that has enjoyed bipartisan support for many years and the funding for this program expired on Sept. 30. So while many of these members were rushing to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy and big corporations, they let funding for the CHIP expire, and they still have not passed a bill to fund those programs. That’s had a massive impact on states. So that’s been a big surprise to me, to see them sacrifice CHIP in order to save time to work on a tax scam.

JJS: I am definitely a mix of optimism and pessimism. I don’t want to undermine the seriousness that this bill is going to be a real structural change in favor of the wealthy, and it is definitely something that we are going to have to claw back and undo.

But, that being said, if you had asked me in January where we would be today, I would have painted a darker picture. The only reason it is not worse is because of the millions of people who have called and emailed and gotten arrested and stood outside in the freezing cold and sung tax-themed Christmas carols and everything else. I think it is proof of what we can do when we are united, and get organized and get out in the streets. I am just looking forward to seeing that applied through the electoral sphere in the near future.

SJ: Speaking of that, next year is a congressional election year. What do you want to see from people who are running to replace some of the people who are going to vote for this tax bill?

JJS: We actually have a platform that we are asking folks to run on. It is our Protest to Power platform, and it has a lot of the pieces that we are working toward and fighting for. We are looking for folks who are really willing and excited to co-govern with us, with the people in their communities; people who are not trying to get elected to then shut the door; but who will get elected and then hold the door open to keep that communication going; to really listen to what their constituents are saying, and to transfer as much power as possible away from special interests and into our hands.

The bills and the planks in our platform are derived from talking to people in communities that are affected. When we talk about what we need for environmental justice, we talk to the people who are on the front lines who are facing disinvestment in their communities, and pollution, and decades and decades of poisoning. What do they need? What do they need to begin to prepare for the climate crisis that is coming?

SJ: How can people keep up with you and People’s Action and all the things you’ll be doing in the next year?

SCW: The best way to keep up with us is to go to our website: Sign up for our updates, learn more about where there are affiliates near you that you be plugged into.

JJS: If you go on our website, there is a list of all of them. If you have got one in your area, the best way to get the People’s Action experience is to join an organization in your community and build something with your neighbors. The Protest to Power platform is also pretty easy to find on our website. Another great way to keep up with us is with social media: Facebook and Twitter.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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