At 12:36am on Wednesday morning, December 20, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin looked up from the Senate floor and laughed. A crowd of Republican senators joined, smiling at the apparent joke above them.
Just seconds before, several people in the public gallery chanted, “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” A few minutes passed, then, “Kill the bill, or you’re fired!” boomed another protester. As Capitol Police made arrests, the pleas continued, “Have you no sense of decency?” yelled Mark Milano, after explaining that Medicare covered his cancer medications. The GOP leadership appeared to find this funny.
Moments later, the tax bill passed the Senate in a party line vote, 51-48.
The Senate chamber was full of Republican applause. At least, that was the view on C-SPAN. The scene above, in the public gallery, was a stark contrast. Those who weren’t arrested buried their faces in neighboring shoulders. Others stared blankly in disbelief at the scene below.
Most senate Democrats left quickly after the vote. I can’t blame them. But I wish they had stayed. I wish they had witnessed the juxtaposition of snide celebration below and the pain above in the gallery.
The tax bill shell with an Obamacare repeal core would indeed attack American health: 13 million more uninsured over the next decade; health insurance premium increases by an additional 10 percent annually; and a $1.4 trillion addition to the national debt, a nidus for arguments to defund life-saving programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (in addition to the bill’s automatic cuts to these programs.) It’s no surprise why many feared for their lives.
Those of us in the Senate gallery had traveled from across America. Some of us were health professionals. Some of us lived with chronic illnesses and disabilities. All of us were patients. Together, we cringed while a tax bill’s passage crippled American health care.
As we left the gallery, a deputy to the Sergeant at Arms advised us that we should contact our senators’ offices instead of protest. She seemed surprised why anyone would protest and risk arrest during a tax bill vote.
We laughed at her suggestion, an echo of the Republican senators on the floor below.
What the deputy didn’t understand is that we already made those contacts. At least, we tried. We spoke to locked office doors, participated in depersonalized telephone town halls, and watched as senators literally ran from us (Sen. Lindsey Graham sprinted away last week when Ady Barkan and Megan Anderson, who both live with progressive neurological diseases, asked him questions about the tax bill.)
Anderson, who lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, uses a power wheelchair and requires personal aides to assist her with activities like showering. On December 19, she sat through seven hours of Senate floor debate prior to the early morning vote.
“Being there allowed me to represent a community of people living with genetic diseases,” Anderson said. “I wanted to watch those senators vote against my community. I wanted to witness their hypocrisy.”
There is an assumption made by Congress members that they prioritize constituent input. With the tax bill as case in point, this claim lives far from reality. A recent Monmouth poll showed a mere 26 percent of Americans approved of the tax bill. Such suffocation of constituent voices was achieved by 57 percent of the 11,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., who, during the first nine months of 2017, reported they worked on tax-related issues.
The tax bill had no testimonies. There were no hearings. After such scarce public input, constituents-turned-protesters waited for hours to watch the vote, and then, be heard.
Ady Barkan, who lives with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), was finally heard after he captured Sen. Jeff Flake’s attention on a flight to Arizona earlier this month. Barkan explained how the tax bill would immediately place his life at risk through automatic cuts to Medicare. As his condition progresses, Medicare will help cover health care costs. Flake still voted yes.
In November, Mainers overwhelmingly voted for Medicaid expansion in their state and supported Sen. Susan Collins’s no vote on the ACA repeal. She then flip-flopped to repeal the ACA mandate in the tax bill.
Hours after the Senate vote, Collins admitted the health care protections promised to her by GOP leadership — in exchange for her vote — would not be met this year.
If the Republican agenda continues to slowly degrade public health systems, Americans will continue to respond (even if that means risking arrest during Senate votes.) The arrests charged to activists in the Senate gallery legally read, “Disruption of Congress.” But wouldn’t laughing in the face of people fighting for their lives also constitute disruption? I imagine it does. I hope the chuckles from so many Republican senators were of nervousness. Because come November 2018, their constituents will have the last laugh.
Augie Lindmark is an Oryema Fellow in Social Medicine with SocMed, a health equity education organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You may connect with him on Twitter and find more of his writing at TheAccompanier.com.