The scene outside Tuesday’s Senate Budget Committee hearing was a familiar one. More than 30 activists, some in wheelchairs, were handcuffed and taken away by Capitol Police as they protested against the Republican tax bill.
During the fight over the health care bill this summer, disabled activists deployed mass acts of civil disobedience, camping out in Senate offices and getting arrested when they refused to leave. It made them a symbol of the resistance and helped lead to the health care bill’s defeat.
As Senate Republicans are on the verge of passing their tax overhaul bill, grassroots action against the Republican tax bill has been intensifying. In addition to Tuesday’s arrests, hundreds of protests have taken place across the country and thousands of phone calls are being made to Senate offices.
But even though activist groups are galvanized, some are wondering — is anyone listening?
Activists are struggling to draw the public’s attention to the tax bill in the same way they did during the health care fight. That’s in part because the bill is chock full of competing issues; besides closing in on major tax cuts for America’s wealthy and corporations, Republicans are also proposing to kill Obamacare’s individual mandate, open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling, and the House GOP wants to dramatically raise taxes on America’s graduate students, causing thousands to reevaluate their plans to pursue higher education.
“The bill is a microcosm for the Trump era,” said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group. “Lots of outrageous things in the bill aren’t getting the kind of attention they ought to.”
With the stakes so high, liberal activists are pressing ahead, in hopes they can derail the GOP effort. There’s certainly no lack of action. As the sun set and senators started debating the tax bill on Thursday, progressive groups including Not One Penny, MoveOn, and Americans for Tax Fairness gathered outside for a “people’s filibuster protest,” and were joined by lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). Activists stayed there for the rest of the night and into the morning.
Earlier in the day, a group dressed in plush polar bear and reindeer suits staged a protest against drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Republicans are closer to doing than they’ve been in years.
Protesters in front of the Capitol, drawing attention to the fact the GOP tax bill would open up ANWR to oil and gas drilling. pic.twitter.com/OnyCSM3qWk— Ella Nilsen (@ella_nilsen) November 30, 2017
Protests haven’t been relegated to Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, thousands of graduate students across the country staged a walkout, protesting the steep tax hikes they’ll face if the bill goes through. Progressive phone company CREDO Mobile says its members have made has made more than 45,000 calls to congressional offices since the beginning of the week. During the health care debate, CREDO focused on targeting Senate district offices, making at least 1,000 calls to key Senate offices right around the vote.
“We’re back where we were earlier this year with the health care bill,” Angel Padilla, policy director for Indivisible, a national activist group, told Vox a few weeks ago. “We have to kill it in the Senate.”
Still, the battle is proving difficult. With no major legislative wins so far this year, Republicans are charging ahead on their bill. The Senate is poised to vote on their tax bill Friday, even as they make major last-minute changes to it. With the fast pace, confusion over what is in the bill, and broad implications for everyone, the GOP isn’t making it easy for activists to fight back.
“If you screw everyone over at the same time, in some sense it makes it harder for them to fight back against you,” said Ohio graduate student and organizer Noah Charles.
The GOP tax bill is much more than a tax bill — and other issues are getting lost in the fray
Senate Republicans are on the verge of passing a sweeping tax overhaul that would raise the deficit by $1 trillion. The process has been swift, secretive, and confusing. The GOP is racing toward the finish line on taxes; the Senate is on the verge of voting on a bill even as they rewrite it the very end of the process, to appease key holdouts.
Both the House and Senate bills have moved through their respective chambers at light speed. The House bill was passed within two weeks of first being introduced, and the Senate bill could be passed three weeks after its first introduction. There’s a distinct method to this grueling pace, as Vox’s Dylan Scott writes:
To prevent a tax overhaul from suffering Obamacare repeal’s fate, Republicans have sought to move quickly and perfected their ability to disregard evidence from outside experts that their tax bill won’t achieve what they promised.
The fact that the Senate is rapidly approaching a vote without final bill text makes it all the harder for activist groups to hone a message — last minute deals make for a moving target.
But the core of the House and Senate bills remain the same. To pay for the corporate tax cuts at the center of the bill, Republicans are finding creative ways to raise revenue. So far, these include cutting Obamacare’s individual mandate tax penalty (which would save more than $300 billion, but also result in 13 million people losing their health insurance). As Vox’s Sarah Kliff writes, the tax bill has the potential to dramatically change the American health care system; including potentially triggering a $25 billion cut to Medicare each year.
Those things are notable on their own, but the Republican bill doesn’t stop there. It would also open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, adding a relatively small $1 billion cash infusion to help close the deficit. ANWR drilling also helps secure the crucial vote of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is a fierce drilling advocate.
Republicans have been trying to open up portions of Alaska’s pristine public lands to drilling for decades. The 19 million-acre refuge was created in 1960 and is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States. It’s home to polar bears and musk oxen, and is the calving ground for porcupine caribou. Republicans who want to drill have been unsuccessful each time, because they usually need 60 votes in order to pass the measure, but because it’s a provision of the tax bill, they only need a simple majority.
“This issue has no business being in a tax bill and we are outraged by this backdoor attempt to turn America’s best protected wildlife refuge into an industrial oil field,” Taurel said. “Certainly our members are very fired up about it. We can’t alert them enough.”
Some Democrats are concerned the threat to ANWR is being lost among all the other issues in the tax bill.
“It’s really not gotten the attention that it should,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently told Politico. “It’s not just the budget discussion. It’s about everything else that’s going on, the flurry of all sorts of other news.”
That’s exactly how America’s grad students feel about their tax bill plight. Many worry they could be paying much higher taxes if the provision in the House tax bill targeting them is approved by both chambers. Thousands of grad students who teach undergraduate classes or help out on research projects get tuition waivers from the federal government to help cover the cost of their education. If the Senate also does away with the tax breaks grad students get on the value of their tuition waivers from the federal government, their taxes would go up significantly.
Charles, who is pursuing a graduate degree in physics at Ohio State University, is one of the people who stands to lose out under the Senate tax plan. He currently pays about $1,500 in taxes, but his rates could go up by $3,900, more than double what he pays now.
Thousands of grad students staged a walkout from campuses yesterday. And while Charles said it’s been easy to galvanize support among people who are impacted, it’s been difficult to draw attention to the issue.
“It has been difficult to compete with the various portions of the bill, and the fact that I have to use the word ‘compete’ speaks to what’s going on here,” Charles said.