“The People Did Not Vote for Tax Breaks for the Rich”: Activists Vow to Stop GOP Tax Bill and Hold Congress Accountable

Maine People's Alliance organized a last-minute protest in Kittery, Maine, to demand Sen. Susan Collins vote no on the tax bill up for vote this week. (Photo courtesy of People's Action)Maine People’s Alliance organized a last-minute protest in Kittery, Maine, to demand Sen. Susan Collins vote “no” on the tax bill up for vote today. (Photo courtesy of People’s Action)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 101st in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you conversations with Sarah Chaisson-Warner and Jessica Juarez Scruggs of People’s Action. Chaisson-Warner discusses how People’s Action activists are continuing protests to stop the GOP tax bill up for a vote today, and Juarez Scruggs discusses the organization’s long-term organizing strategies for 2018 and beyond.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on Monday morning. It is the down-to-the-wire moment for stopping the tax bill. First off, tell me what some of your groups were up to over the weekend.

Sarah Chaisson-Warner: Over the last three weeks, the affiliates of People’s Action across the country have held 53 actions in the field and supported those actions. Those are actions with people across the country 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.” And so, they’re continuing to do that. Maine People’s Alliance held a large march in Kittery, Maine, through a snowstorm — people so committed to showing Sen. [Susan] Collins 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 Rep. Mooney‘s office, where the Christmas carol lyrics were shifted and changed to reflect the sad state of the tax scam bill. And going forward, we’re continuing to generate calls across the country to members of Congress to show our opposition to this bill.

People across the country did not vote for more tax breaks for the rich and big corporations.

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.

Looking forward … do you have a sense of how quickly things are moving on this and who is potentially flippable?

We’re still working to influence some of our targets in the Senate and the House…. In the Senate we did hear over the weekend that Sen. [Bob] Corker had shifted his vote, although that does not mean that the people of Tennessee will not be out this week. In Nashville, our affiliate is actually working with some of their allies as we speak to plan actions around that flip of the 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 this bill. Members who are concerned about the repeal of the individual mandate and have real deeply-invested concerns about health care. We have some members who have some 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 … and we will be out in the streets and in the news and everywhere else showing members of Congress that this was the wrong decision.

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 — even rumors that Paul Ryan might not run for re-election. It seems like perhaps they know that if they pass this, they are going to pay a price at the ballot box.

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.

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, why they made the wrong decision. We will certainly be working in an accountability range over the next year.

Since we’re now at the end of the year, what’s been surprising to you about the last year in fighting back, in resistance, in the organizing that you’re doing on the ground for forward-looking plans?

We’ve had some good surprises and we’ve had some not-so-good surprises this year. In terms of good surprises, 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 so impressed by how much vigor there has been in states and in communities across the country, and we’ve seen 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 repeal the Affordable Care Act, all the way up to the blizzard that I just mentioned yesterday…. So, that’s been a really wonderful surprise, just how long and how motivated people are to continue the resistance….

Frankly, I’ve been incredibly surprised that this Congress has let funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) expire. This is a program that has enjoyed bipartisan support for many years and the funding for this program expired on September 30. So, while many of these members were rushing to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy and big corporations, they let funding for children’s health insurance 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.

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

The best way to keep up with us is to go to our website at PeoplesAction.org, sign up for our updates, learn more about where there are affiliates near you that you can be a part of and be plugged into. Those are probably the best ways to get involved with us.

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Sarah Jaffe: On Friday, I also spoke with Jessica Juarez Scruggs of People’s Action, as the GOP dropped its “final” version of the bill…. What do we expect to see in this final version of it that they seem to think they can actually pass?

Jessica Juarez Scruggs: There are some changes that have happened around the edges and it is a thousand-page document so — full disclosure — I have not finished reading it.

Neither has anybody who has been involved in writing it. Don’t worry.

Neither has anyone who is going to vote on it…. They have changed 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 I heard that the tax hike on graduate students was out, that Marco Rubio got his increase in the child tax credit — [a] very minor increase in the child tax credit, as far as I could tell. So, what we are looking at now is the one thing that they might actually succeed in passing through Congress this year.

I think we are seeing the one thing the GOP can still all get behind, which is giving money to the wealthy. They might not be able to get together on exactly how to take health care away from everybody, but they certainly were able to find a path to success here, it looks like. I don’t want to for a second say that 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 Congress people down on planes. We are not about to sit down and allow this to happen without our voices registering, but it certainly is a tough task to stopping this bill, and it has been from the beginning.

Talk a little bit about what your member organizations have been doing all week. There have been arrests in DC, arrests in several different congressional offices, Congress people hiding from their constituents.

We have had over 50 actions in the last three weeks in Republican districts across the country. 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, the wealth gap is at an all-time high, and people are really concerned that this is a two-step process [and] this is the first shoe to drop. But we all know that this has been achieved by budget magic and the only way they are going to pay for this … is cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — the programs that our folks depend on to stay alive and keep their families healthy. We are really concerned about this being rushed through…. As I said, we have an organizer in Michigan that was with the six Congress people on the plane, shaking them up. We have folks all over showing up at Congressional offices and Senate offices to make their voices heard.

Also, right now, there are people sitting in a congressman’s office over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the DREAM Act, as well.

The other piece we have been fighting tooth and nail all year is keeping our health care. The other thing this tax bill does is threaten the health care of millions of Americans by repealing individual mandate.

Just to recap, I think most people don’t actually understand what the individual mandate does and how that particularly helps hold together the patchwork that is the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act has always been a compromise to get us closer to more people covered. It is not what we need in the end, but what it does — what the individual mandate does — is say that everybody needs to have health insurance and imposes a tax penalty if you don’t have insurance. If you are guaranteed the ability to get health care, you can’t be denied because of a pre-existing condition. The concern is that people will only get health care when they find out they are sick. If that is the case, if healthy people — especially healthy young people — don’t get health care coverage, then the whole system of the insurance market that we have tends to start to unravel a little bit.

That being said, the extent to which it unravels, we have been pretty clear that it has been inflated by insurance companies who want to keep incredibly massive profits…. We are hearing a lot of insurance companies saying they need to double or triple their premiums coming up in this next year, and that is not a reflection of them not making a solid profit.

We had an interesting election result [last] week, also. You would think that perhaps this would have been a sign to some of these Republicans who are up for re-election in 2018, that maybe they were going to lose. But instead, it sounds like they are just going to announce retirement and loot the whole thing on the way out.

It seems to me that they are trying to loot the store on the way out the door. The decision of New York, New Jersey and California Republicans to support this bill when local tax exemptions … they haven’t completely done away with them in this conference bill, but they are reduced and that is going to hurt a lot of their constituents. Then, generally speaking, that is not a great idea if you want to get re-elected, but they have decided that the interests of their mega-donors are more important than the interests of the communities they serve, so they are going with it.

That is an interesting one, too, because I think one of the things about this bill is that this is not just a massive tax break for billionaires; this does actually raise taxes on working people. It raises taxes on the people who are members of the organization that you work with, it raises taxes on me, and that seems like kind of 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.

Yes. I think they have sort of been scraping wherever they can to get the revenue they need to pay for some of these massive giveaways that they want to do, 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, which is something that is only going to benefit the very, very wealthy. Really, actually, [it is] kind of laser-targeted for real estate developers, so maybe it is a special favor to the president. But to get the money to pay for those and still stay under the $1.5 trillion line, they really have to go through the middle class. It is the only way to kind of raise the revenue … to cut us off at the knees.

This is not exactly directly related, but it is interesting to know, they also repealed the regulations that make up net neutrality this week. It has been a year. One of the upsides of this year is that if this passes, this literally will be the only big piece of legislation that this Congress passes at all and they are only able to do that because they can force it through on reconciliation because they don’t have enough of a majority in the Senate to break a filibuster on anything else. Although this would be a bad note to end the year on, it has been an interesting experience to see how much can be stopped.

I am definitely a mix of optimism and pessimism here, where this bill … I don’t want to undermine the seriousness that this is going to be a real structural change in favor of the wealthy and, God knows, we don’t need more of those. 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 get 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.

Speaking of that, next year is going to be a Congressional election year. There are going to be some big Senate seats up. Paul Ryan might retire. Fun things like that. 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?

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. I can name some specific priorities, but I think the biggest thing is that we are really looking for folks who are really willing and excited to co-govern with us, with the people in their communities; that are not trying to get elected and then shut the door, but really get elected and then hold the door open and keep that communication — really listen to what their constituents are saying — and transfer as much power away from special interests and into our hands. We think that the people who are experiencing these issues are the ones who are most able to actually come up with the solutions.

The bills and the planks in our platform are derived from talking to people within 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 have been facing disinvestment in their communities and pollution and decades and decades of poisoning. What do they need? What do they need to begin to heal that, to begin to prepare for the climate crisis that is coming? That is how we get to things like the OFF Act, which is a bill in Congress now, one that we are supporting, that not only gets us toward a cleaner and greener economy, but it actually specifically puts money back into the communities that have been hardest hit.

Where can people find this platform and how can they keep up with you and your organization?

The platform is on our website which is www.PeoplesAction.org. It is pretty easy to find there on the website. Also, a great way to keep up with us is with social media: Facebook and Twitter. And keep up with the various organizations. 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, the real way to get the People’s Action experience is to join an organization in your community and build something with your neighbors. I would encourage you to take a look. We very well may be in a state near you.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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.