Don’t agonize — Organize!
Last week, some 1,400 people from across the country signed up for a CHN-sponsored webinar entitled, The New Congress: How It Plans to Cut and How to Fight Back.
The webinar featured U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who has led anti-hunger efforts in Congress; Ellen Teller, Director of Government Affairs for the Food Research and Action Center and CHN board chairwoman; Ellen Nissenbaum, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; and Deborah Weinstein, Executive Director of the Coalition on Human Needs.
If you missed the webinar, you can listen to it here. The backdrop: When members of the new Congress are sworn in the first week of January, and the new President takes office two weeks later, efforts will begin immediately to begin cutting the safety net. Everything from the Affordable Care Act to Medicaid to Medicare to SNAP to SSI is on the chopping block – and cuts may be coupled with hefty tax breaks for the rich that will make it more difficult to fund programs in the future.
McGovern, ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, said incoming members of Congress as well as nominees to President-elect Trump’s Cabinet already are planning an assault on the needs of low-income and other vulnerable Americans – and a new, heightened response at the grassroots level is needed.
“I think it is important that people continue to talk directly to their elected officials here in Washington, but I think it’s important that we intensify the local organizing effort even more,” he said. “I think it’s equally important to do press conferences in front of congressional offices, with some of the beneficiaries of some of these programs that are going to be on the chopping block, to raise awareness locally and to increase pressure on elected officials. I think it’s important to tell stories. We’re all very good at giving statistics and figures, and we’re going to continue to do that, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be important that we are armed with real, live stories.”
Ellen Teller, who joked that the webinar’s subtitle could be, Don’t Agonize—Organize reminded the webinar audience that we – and they – have faced threats to the safety net before and have fought back.
“This is not our first rodeo,” she said of webinar participants. “We have been through budget battles in the past. We have been through similar efforts in Congress to change the structure or weaken our safety net programs. We’ve fought back, and in many cases, we’ve prevailed.”
Ellen Nissenbaum, one of the foremost budget experts when it comes to human needs priorities, emphasized the importance of not just focusing on levels of funding, but more intensely on the structural integrity of programs.
“You can live to fight another day on a budget cut,” she said. “But if you lose the fundamental structure and financing of a program, you never come back and undo that. To our mind, it means the single most important thing for those of us working on poverty is to ensure that we do not lose the Medicaid or SNAP entitlements this year.”
Nissenbaum laid out the likely timeline of the budget battles and other battles in 2017, and discussed some of the arcane rules surrounding reconciliation, a process by which the Senate can pass certain legislation with only 51 votes instead of the usual, filibuster-proof 60 votes. She said Senate leaders are likely to repeal most of the Affordable Care Act – and perhaps the Medicaid expansion included in it – in January or February through reconciliation. Later in the year, probably in the summer or fall, reconciliation could be used again to block-grant Medicaid and SNAP, to pass tax cuts, to pass an infrastructure bill, or perhaps do any combination of those things.
Deborah Weinstein urged webinar participants to sign the SAVE for All letter CHN is circulating. The SAVE letter opposes dismantling the safety net and supports investments to extend opportunity and economic security to all. You can read the letter here, and CHN is recruiting both organizations to sign the letter, and individuals to sign a petition supporting the terms outlined in the letter.
She reminded webinar participants that sometimes winning in the Senate will require 51 votes – such as when reconciliation is used – but often, when Senate action requires 60 votes for passage, preventing bad legislation can succeed with just 41 votes. Sometimes, she noted, the strategy will require winning over a few GOP lawmakers, while other times it will mainly require holding Democrats. Because CHN is a bipartisan organization, she said, it will rely on both strategies.
“Like never before, we have to stand together,” she said. “We have to be out there showing members of Congress that there are people and organizations all over their district or state that are paying attention and will hold them accountable and will support them in their opposition….And we must build the network of people ready to take action when Congress is about to act.”
Make sure you’re a part of our network of people ready to take action. Sign the SAVE for All letter for organizations and petition for individuals today!