Liberal Groups’ Next Target: Tax Reform

After helping to derail Obamacare reform, progressive activists hope to do the same to the next big GOP initiative.

AP Photo/Reed Saxon
Casey Wooten
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Casey Wooten
Aug. 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

Liberal groups scored a victory when they helped stop the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare, and now they’re turning their eyes toward the next big debate on Capitol Hill.

Progressive organizations are rolling out seven-figure ad buys and organizing grassroots campaigns to battle against GOP proposals to cut tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, a move they say would lead to less funding for Medicare, education, and other government programs.

The campaigns set up a tumultuous next few months for the tax-reform debate, as both sides battle for public opinion on the future of tax policy. The Obamacare-repeal debate resonated with many because the GOP effort would have taken something away: a relatively new entitlement. The challenge for liberal groups is to frame a similar message for tax reform.

Many conservative and business groups largely sat on the sidelines in the fight to repeal Obamacare. The tax-reform effort will be different, Nicole Gill, executive director of the left-leaning group Tax March, said.

“In a way that we didn’t see on health care, there is going to be a ton of money put into this fight from conservative and from special-interest groups that are funded by millionaires,” Gill said.

Indeed, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity will spend the August recess rolling out campaigns to get the public fired up about tax reform. Liberal organizations have a response, however.

Organizations like Tax March, Americans for Tax Fairness, Citizens for Tax Justice, and MoveOn.org have formed the Not One Penny campaign, a coalition of 20 groups aimed at opposing tax cuts for big business and high-income individuals.

“Corporate lobbyists are descending on D.C. to dig through the tax code and find more ways for the wealthiest Americans to get even larger tax breaks than they already enjoy,” Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, said in a statement last week announcing the coalition. “Through the Not One Penny campaign, we will take the fight to special interests and advocate for the middle class and those left out of the back-room deals.”

Republicans have said they hope to begin committee work on a broad rewrite of the tax code when lawmakers return in September, with a goal of passing a bill before the end of the year. Both lawmakers and the Trump administration plan for broad tax cuts for businesses and individuals, though the fate of popular deductions is less clear.

Not One Penny—as in not one penny in tax cuts for the wealthy—will roll out a seven-figure advertising campaign in key Republican-held districts in states such as Texas, Arkansas, California, and Arizona that could be in play for the 2018 midterm elections, Gill said.

That echoes the strategy taken by conservative groups and Republicans. The Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity kicked off its tax-reform campaign last week with two events held in Washington in which the group called for lower corporate and individual tax rates. The group will launch a multi-million-dollar campaign with rallies in key states.

During a July 31 event, White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short said groups should target Democratic senators in the upper Midwest—in states President Trump won—pressuring them to vote with Republicans on a tax reform bill.

“If they hear from their constituents that they need tax reform, that’s going to be a very strong selling point,” Short said.

Liberal groups are set to step up their opposition to AFP and other conservative organizations over tax reform. Tax March and other left-leaning groups sponsored a protest outside of the building hosting the Americans for Prosperity event last week. Gill said Tax March and others have brought in organizers to Washington D.C. for training on tax reform activism.

Tax March got its start organizing an April 15—tax day—protest in Washington D.C. demanding that President Donald Trump release his tax returns. They’ve been unsuccessful so far to coax those returns from the president, but Gill said that the experience led many progressive groups to acknowledge the need to organize on broader tax issues.

“We didn’t anticipate what this would become,” Gill said. “But I think that it was clear that after April 15, that there was energy, there was enthusiasm for continuing to use the tax march as an organizing network, and also just knowing that taxes were going to be on the national agenda and something that we were going to have to mobilize around as progressives anyway.”

But before Congress can fully pivot to tax reform, it must first pass a budget. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that lawmakers would advance a tax-reform bill this year using reconciliation, which would bypass a Democratic filibuster in the upper chamber. That will require Congress to pass a budget that includes reconciliation instructions first, however.

Melissa Boteach, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the liberal Center for American Progress, said her organization is part of an effort to push back against cuts in both the White House’s proposed budget, released in May, or the House’s proposed budget, released in July. Both would slash funding for Medicaid and food-stamp programs.

CAP has launched handsoff.org along with other progressive groups such as Public Citizen and Indivisible. The website breaks down how cuts to health care, education, and other programs would affect each congressional district.

Boteach said the goal is to tie spending cuts to a real-world impact for the average American, a tactic successfully deployed during the battle over repealing Obamacare, in which progressive groups framed the debate to focus on the millions who would potentially lose their health insurance coverage.

That, Boteach said, also helps link the battle over spending cuts in the budget to the fight over cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

“It’s important for people to understand that this is directly impacting their financial security,” Boteach said.

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