Democrats Are Sounding the Alarm on the Tax Bill

A tax overhaul with less intensity than the health care debate.

Nanci Pelosi, Chuck Schumer
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speak during a Nov. 2 briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer do not often begin their weeks with urgent, joint press conferences. The two congressional minority leaders did this week, though, delivering grave warnings about the Republican tax plan that is currently barreling its way through Congress despite the best efforts of Democrats.

“What did suburbia ever do to the Republicans that they now have to make an assault on them?” Pelosi said Monday, speaking in front of signs that read “No middle class tax hike!” and “Don’t tax the suburbs!” Schumer similarly emphasized that Republican members from the “middle-class swing suburbs” were “slapping around” their voters, “and they think they can get away with it. But they can’t.”

Can they, though?

If Republican members in “swing suburbs” were truly feeling the heat over changes to the state and local tax deduction, say, or the mortgage interest deduction, or other tax breaks the GOP’s plans curtail, the House bill might actually be in peril. Instead, it’s heading toward a vote on Thursday that few seem to think is in doubt. At the same time, the Senate proposal is proceeding through committee markup this week with relatively little attention. Though some senators are working to eliminate the individual mandate as part of the bill, it has yet to amass any hard “no” votes in a conference teeming with contrasting sensitivities.

Democrats and aligned grass-roots groups are trying everything to mobilize the same kind of opposition that repeatedly blocked Obamacare repeal earlier this year. But they’re not having much luck.

“If you look at the big picture, there’s not the same intensity in the response,” Angel Padilla, the policy director for the liberal grass-roots group Indivisible, told me.

“I think that’s pretty understandable,” he added. “[When] we’re talking about people’s health care, it was a visceral response” from people “who really felt like their health care was at risk.” Taxes, meanwhile, are confusing and complicated, with so many provisions flying around that many don’t know if they’ll come ahead winners or losers. He said that nevertheless, they have seen people activate once the contents of the bill really sink in with them, and that Indivisible groups held over 120 events in the previous week.

Topher Spiro, the Center for American Progress’ vice president for health policy, helped stoke the grass-roots resistance to Republicans’ Obamacare repeal plans. On health care, he said, the Congressional Budget Office was seen as the “ultimate arbiter,” and there was one statistic near the top of every CBO report that the entire opposition could use as rallying point: the coverage figure. Within seconds of its release, the headline number of 22, 23, 24, 32 million more uninsured would be blasted out. It’s much more difficult to rally around a figure when you have multiple proposals working through Congress at the same time and various analyses floating around. Figuring out how many families face a tax increase requires extrapolating from, say, the third table on Page 6 of a dry report from the Joint Committee on Taxation.

When I asked Pelosi and Schumer whether they were worried about the lack of mobilization against the tax bill, Schumer noted that it was just “starting” to pick up in intensity. Both cited rallies around the country over the weekend organized by members of Congress and Democratic congressional candidates.

Pelosi conceded, though, that the opposition would really mobilize if Republicans threw health care elements, like repeal of the individual mandate, into the tax bill. “When you get anywhere near health issues,” she said, “you explode the activism.” Senate Republicans on Tuesday leaned toward including the mandate repeal in their bill, so Democrats may get that explosion they need. But relying on health care politics to kill a tax bill implicitly acknowledges the underlying problem: It’s hard to get the public riled up about tax reform on its own terms.

Pelosi suggested that there could be a silver lining to House Republicans passing their tax bill this week. “The good news is that once people have voted for it, people pay attention. What is that?” she said. “It takes it to a different level of awareness in the public mind.”

Padilla said he’s been trying “for weeks now” to get groups to understand that this bill is moving forward quickly and that congressional Republicans are on schedule to send this to the president in a few weeks. “There are always a bunch of distractions,” he lamented, citing controversies over Roy Moore or the Russia probe. “But right now, Republicans are about to pass this massive tax bill that is basically going to screw over middle-class families.”

“This is expected to get through the House Thursday,” he said. “I think when it’s going to start to feel real for people.”

Even then, Democrats face a messaging dilemma. Whichever final bill emerges will give a lot of middle-class families an immediate tax cut, even if they’re modest compared to the bill’s central purpose of cutting corporate taxes nearly in half. People like tax cuts. The message that Democrats and their allies are selling them, then, is to not be fooled: The bill will soon come due.

“If they get this bill passed, next year, this will mean cuts to things like Medicaid, cuts to things like Medicare,” Padilla said. As he, Spiro, and others have pointed out, Republicans have been clear about what’s coming next.

“There’s two things you need to do to get our fiscal house in order,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press conference last week. “Grow the economy … and deal with spending, especially entitlement spending.” The tax plan is their attempt at the first. North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, predicted earlier in November that the Republican Congress would turn to entitlements and other federal spending in 2018. And Gary Cohn, the White House economic adviser, has said that “welfare” is coming up soon. (President Trump doesn’t respond well to the term “entitlement” reform, so his advisers just call it “welfare” reform instead.)

Even if Republicans don’t choose to take up entitlement cuts next year as a stand-alone project, the passage of their tax cuts will necessitate them. As CBO wrote in a letter Tuesday, the $1.5 trillion tax cuts would trigger statutory “pay-as-you-go” (PAYGO) rules requiring $25 billion in Medicare cuts in 2018 alone.

And if all of these arguments still fail to effectively mobilize people against the bill? Spiro suggests just laying bare the political argument for fighting against this proposal: If Republicans fail on this tax bill, it will mark “Trump’s Waterloo.”

“I don’t know if people view it as the ultimate final battle that it could be,” Spiro said.