In Washington, Republicans are closing in on passage of the most sweeping rewrite of the U.S. tax code in a generation, and to Democrats and progressive activists, it seems clear the tax train is almost certain to reach its destination, no matter how hard they try to stop it.
Just since the beginning of November, Republicans have introduced legislation to overhaul the tax system, considered amendments to that legislation, secured passage in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and then met to hash out the differences between the two chambers’ bills. It could be signed into law as early as Wednesday.
The abbreviated tax fight has been a particularly frustrating one for Democratic politicians and activists, who have spent the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency finding success in blocking parts of the GOP agenda, particularly the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans have managed to move at high speed without a single Democratic vote, as Democratic lawmakers, even those up for reelection in states won by Trump, steer clear of the bills.
Growing worry among Republicans over the lack of a signature legislative achievement in 2017, combined with a broadly and deeply shared political imperative to cut taxes, have fueled Republicans’ rush to pass a tax bill. They have rapidly put aside their policy differences to ensure that a tax cut for corporations and individuals with a $1.4 trillion price tag can become law by the end of the year.
Even the truest believers among the progressive grassroots concede that stopping the GOP tax plan now will be a difficult lift.
A bit more delayed, and a little less direct
On a frigid December day, a crowd of activists opposed to the GOP tax plan assembled at the east front of the U.S. Capitol, making an 11th-hour plea to Congress to throw the brakes on the legislation.
“Why are you so quiet?” an organizer shouted to the crowd bundled in hats and hand-warmers. “Let’s do some chanting!”
The chants, signs, and speeches at the rally — organized by an anti-tax bill coalition called Not One Penny — illustrate some of the challenges Democrats have faced in countering the Republican tax push.
Protesters chanted about how the bill would hurt education and Medicare, they held signs calling out tax breaks for the wealthy and what the bill could do to hurt the Affordable Care Act.
There’s plenty in the tax bill for Democrats to hammer away at, but that’s part of the problem: the tax overhaul could change not just how Americans file their taxes but how they receive health care, go to school, and access other critical social services. It’s a pitch that’s more complicated, Democrats say, than urging people to oppose a bill that would end a single established program like Obamacare.
Washington Democrats believe they have found success in persuading the public that the tax plan will largely benefit the wealthy, as opposed to the middle and working-class people that Trump and GOP leadership have tried to sway. Polling on the bill backs that up: a recent poll from Harvard University found 64 percent of Americans opposed to the legislation.
At the same time, the complexity of the tax code — and a legislative process in which specific details about elements of the bill remain opaque just days before the president could sign it — have created challenges that have made it harder for progressives to rally opposition to the bill.
Fifth District DFL Rep. Keith Ellison said it’s harder to evoke an “emotional response” on taxes than on an issue like health care, on which Democrats found a lot of success.
“So you tell somebody they’re taking away your health care, and people’s minds automatically go to their own cancer, or their loved ones,” Ellison said. “It’s very personal. Whereas the tax thing is a bit theoretical — like, if they do this, it’s going to cause greater income inequality, and down the line, it’s going to make every working-class person’s life worse.”
“Even though it’s deadly, it’s a little bit more delayed and it’s a little less direct.”
That sentiment is shared among grassroots progressives: Jena Martin, co-chair of the chapter of anti-Trump group Indivisible in the 3rd Congressional District, described the effort to organize against the tax bill as more difficult than their effort against the plans to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“I think health care is complicated too, but it’s easier to boil it down to a soundbite,” Martin said. She described her group’s efforts to organize demonstrations at the office of 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen, calls to members of Congress, and something she called a “poetry slam” in opposition to the tax bill.
“We’re still trying to do creative things and highlight the doublespeak [Republicans] use around the issue,” Martin said. She maintained that many activists remain enthusiastic, but conceded they are worn down after a busy year of protesting and organizing on health care, Trump’s travel ban, and other things.
“I feel like they’re trying to grind people down,” she said.
Some in Democratic offices say fewer calls are coming in from constituents on the tax issue, as compared to the deluge of hundreds of thousands of calls they received urging no votes on the Republican health care bills.
A foregone conclusion
To 8th District DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, stopping tax legislation was always going to be hard: it’s the main issue on which a fractious Republican Party can find common ground.
“I don’t think that there’s anything that’s going to stop this,” Nolan told MinnPost. “I’ve never seen anything that motivates Republicans more than a tax cut for their rich friends… It’s going to happen, one way or the other, and I think that’s a travesty.”
Nolan says he senses the same level of awareness and concern with the tax issue as with health care . “But I think people are viewing it as a foregone conclusion with Trump and the Republicans in control,” he added.
Republican members, though confident in their bill, were more reluctant to forecast a win. Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer, speaking with MinnPost on Thursday, did not want to say much about the tax bill and its chances of passage until a final agreement between House and Senate lawmakers was unveiled .
“I want to see the conference report,” Emmer said. “Generally, I like where they’re headed, but I want to see the detail.” He added that he believes Republican leadership is confident they can iron out the details, and affirmed the need to pass the bill by the end of the year.
“People gotta plan for 2018,” he said. “Regardless of what the politicians think, it’s about the American people and their planning for their families, their business opportunities. I think we owe it to them to get it done.”
On the left, there’s still some hope that the tax push could fall apart, and activists plan to keep up the pressure.
Tim Hogan, a spokesperson for the Not One Penny group that organized the Capitol rally, says that over 1.2 million phone calls have been made to members of Congress since October 1 to urge “no” votes on tax legislation.
He says that activists are hopeful there’s still time to stop it. “There were days we woke up during the fight to preserve the ACA from being repealed when we thought we’d lose that day, no question,” he says.
“We are not taking anything for granted. It is a huge uphill battle. With the energy we’ve seen from the grassroots, we’re going to keep the pressure on.”
But if Republicans do pass the bill, and Trump delivers the great, big Christmas gift he promised, Democrats are already seeing a silver lining: significant blowback against the GOP in next year’s midterms.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, circulated polling on Thursday claiming that the Republican “tax scam bill,” as Democrats have branded it, will make incumbent Republicans more vulnerable in the midterms.
“We’re going to keep on fighting this thing until the end,” Ellison said, “but if this tax bill passes, we’re going to hang it around their neck… If they do it, they’re going to own it, we’re going to stuff it in their pocket and make sure everyone knows who it is that hurt our economy.”
Nolan said once the reality of the tax bill kicks in, it will hurt Republicans dramatically in 2018.
“I think it’s going to put Democrats back in the majority in the House of Representatives.”