Why the coming fight over tax policy will have an '80s beat

Cut taxes? Or solidify social programs? Advocacy organizations are pulling out all the stops for the upcoming tax-reform debate.

With the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act abandoned, conservative groups are making the case that tax reform is long overdue. One is even recycling classic beats to suggest the tax code is as outdated as 1980s pop songs.

With significant tax breaks promised by the Trump administration as part of the reform package, the groups are arguing that business owners would have more money to invest in hiring and boosting wages for the average American. Progressive groups, meanwhile, are hoping to frame the discussion as a fight for affordable healthcare and the protection of education funding, contending that social programs will be cut to fund tax breaks.

Americans for Tax Reform, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and FreedomWorks are among the organizations taking advantage of the Republican Party’s control of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as a Republican -- and businessman -- in the Oval Office, to finally achieve real changes to the tax code.

Americans for Tax Reform is focusing its message on the fact that it’s been decades since the last major overhaul of the tax code.

The issue "is simple for both a congressional staffer and congressman to look at, absorb, and explain, as well as for a regular American trying to comply with the tax code," says John Kartch, VP of communications at the organization.

It’s also taking its strategy of simplicity to social media, for which the organization has created GIFs. One features a clip from a Huey Lewis and the News music video, with the lyrics "Yes, it’s true" playing over copy emphasizing Americans have been stuck with the same tax code since 1986, when the song was a hit. Another features The Bangles’ "Walk Like an Egyptian" to make the point.

This week, Americans for Tax Reform’s office in Washington, DC, hosted a 1986-themed happy hour with congressional and think-tank staffers and business reporters. Kartch says the group will continue to show things as they were in 1986, and question why the tax code hasn’t kept up with the times.

"People understand that message and it resonates with them, so we’ll be doing a lot of fun, cheeky social media items pointing that out," says Kartch. "There will be a series of GIFs, charts, and images making this point over the coming months."

He adds that the temptation for groups like his is to get roped into "inevitable process stories especially from the Beltway saying, ‘Oh my gosh, tax reform is on the brink, bogged down, dying.’"
"We will not be taking the bait on that," Katch says.

Instead, the group will keep hammering home the message that a modern tax code would reduce the tax rate for individual Americans and businesses, putting more money into their pockets.

"We think the most effective way to communicate on this is just to tell people what’s in it for them," says Kartch, who is working to book ATR president Grover Norquist and other executives on radio and TV interviews on hundreds of stations over the coming months. For businesses, the organization will contend that the average U.S. tax rate is 40%, above the average of the rest of the developed world at 25%.

While Republicans have moved on from the concept of a Border Adjustment Tax, other details about the Republican tax-cut plan are scarce, frustrating some members of Congress, according to reports. That hasn’t deterred some tax-reform advocacy groups from emphasizing that Republicans have a unique opportunity.

"We have been emphasizing to our activists and the media that this is a special moment. We haven’t had an opportunity to do fundamental tax reform for a long time," says Jon Meadows, press secretary for FreedomWorks, a grassroots advocacy group that represents small business owners fighting for lower taxes and less government.

The group is planning to use a combination of paid, earned, and social media to emphasize the stories of small business owners.

"We will be working with our small business activists to amplify their stories about the tax code and their inability to hire more people and succeed in business because of it," says Meadows.

But the other side is feeling the momentum...
Buoyed by the defeat of the Republican healthcare repeal in the Senate last month, left-leaning organizations are also mobilizing their activists, pooling together to launch comms campaigns.

Those efforts are arguing the so-called tax reform proposed by the Republicans would benefit only rich Americans and corporations. The message: taking on tax reform is to fight for Medicaid and Medicare, social security and education, because that’s what will be cut to provide those tax cuts to the rich.

"Really the way we’re going to win this is the same way that we’ve so far won the healthcare fight, which is by getting everyday people who have not seriously been involved in political activism before to understand the stakes, go to their members of Congress, sit in their offices, and tell their stories," says T.J. Helmstetter, communications director for Americans for Tax Fairness, a campaign made up of more than 435 national, state, and local endorsing organizations.

"This is another healthcare fight, and so we need to make people understand that the fight isn’t over," he adds.

Americans for Tax Fairness released a statement following the Trump administration’s meeting with small business owners this week. It claims President Donald Trump’s plan would only cut taxes for 7% of business, and most of them would be big, wealthy enterprises, according to its calculations.

The group also plans to poke holes in the Republican argument that American corporations aren’t competitive because of their tax rate by using Trump’s own tweets against him. For instance, on August 1, Trump commented that "corporations have NEVER made as much money as they are making now."

ATF tweeted in response: "Trump made the case for not cutting taxes. Yet, he & the R's in Congress will stop at nothing to give them a huge tax break."

The organization is also supporting a new progressive coalition, Not One Penny, launched on Thursday to protest any Republican tax-reform plan that would lower taxes for big corporations and the wealthy.

The coalition is spearheaded by TaxMarch, which staged more than 200 rallies across the country on April 15 to demand Trump’s tax returns.

"The one penny stands for the red line in the sand that we are going to draw in this debate: not one penny in tax cuts for millionaires, billionaires, and wealthy corporations," says Nicole Gill, executive director of TaxMarch, who says the effort has the support of 20 organizations.

The campaign will spend more than seven figures on a communications campaign this month.

"Traditionally we’re outmatched in funds, but we’re launching with a significant ad buy in August and will continue our communications campaign throughout the fight because it is just getting started," Gill says. "We also have a network of organizers who did the Tax March, and they are continuing to mobilize people on this issue who had come out to fight the GOP health care bill."

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