AHCA: "We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!"
by Tom Sullivan
Take a victory lap.
The Washington Post's Dave Weigel documents activists' role in yesterday's defeat of the American Healthcare Act in the U.S. House of Representatives:
On Friday afternoon, as congressional Democrats learned that the GOP had essentially given up on repealing the Affordable Care Act, none of them took the credit. They had never really cohered around an anti-AHCA message. (As recently as Wednesday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was still using the phrase “make America sick again,” which most Democrats had abandoned.) They’d been sidelined legislatively, as Republicans tried to pass a bill on party lines. They’d never called supporters to the Capitol for a show of force, as Republicans had done, several times, during the 2009-2010 fight to pass the Affordable Care Act.Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus told reporters, “Those big rallies get a lot of media coverage, but they’re not effective.” But across from the Capitol yesterday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi joined a small one organized by MoveOn, kicked off her shoes, and led the group in a jump for joy.
Instead, Democrats watched as a roiling, well-organized “resistance” bombarded Republicans with calls and filled their town hall meetings with skeptics. The Indivisible coalition, founded after the 2016 election by former congressional aides who knew how to lobby their old bosses, was the newest and flashiest. But it was joined by MoveOn, which reported 40,000 calls to congressional offices from its members; by Planned Parenthood, directly under the AHCA’s gun; by the Democratic National Committee, fresh off a divisive leadership race; and by the AARP, which branded the bill as an “age tax” before Democrats had come up with a counterattack.
So what was effective?
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) tells the Post his office "received 1,959 phone calls in opposition to the American Health Care Act. We had 30 for it."
“For the first time in a long time, a pretty sizable number of Republicans were more scared of grass-roots energy of the left than of primaries on the right,” said Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the Working Families Party.
It's not as if Democrats have never tried to get their base to call their congresscritters. Before House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) was mine, it was Democrat Heath Shuler from the Blue Dogs. I'd call a friend on the staff and ask how calls were running on an upcoming vote. Ten to one conservative-to-liberal, she'd say with an exasperated sigh, asking, "Where are the Democrats?!" Post-November 8, 2016, progressive activists are coming out of nowhere and wanting something, anything to do. It's an opportunity for them to make something happen on key votes. It appears they just did. They finally picked up their phones.
But over the course of this fight, there were a lot of Facebook comments from people who called their representatives (particularly Republicans) and got no answer, a busy signal, or a voicemail box that was full. It's frustrating. Email forms are tedious and get ignored if messages are from out of state or district. So try an old-fashioned work-around. If you are under 35, you may never have sent a fax.
On March 21, 2010, the House was preparing to vote on the Affordable Care Act passed by the Senate. The vote would be close. A 2008 Obama campaign veteran I know was planning to blast his large email list and encourage people to phone Heath Shuler's office in support of passage. But it was Sunday. No one would answer and his voicemail in Washington was already full. It would be pointless to ask people to waste their time on a call without even a chance to leave a message.
We thought of inviting people to Democratic headquarters to send a fax to the congressman. But that would be time-consuming and tedious. So we came up with a better idea.
We drafted a sample letter in support of the ACA and emailed it to my friend's list. We suggested if people replied giving their assent, plus adding their name, address, phone number, and perhaps a customized message of their own, we would gladly fax it to the congressman on their behalf.
Minutes later, Paul shouted, "Oh my God, I just got 15 emails!" And they kept coming, some with notes, others without, for hours. Paul bundled them into sets of five, one letter per page, and created a PDF I sent electronically through my fax machine to Shuler's Washington, D.C. office. If that line was busy, we sent to his district office. A veteran union organizer friend calls this tactic fax jamming.
We sent 600 individual faxes.
The Affordable Care Act passed that day with a 219–212 vote. Shuler voted against the bill anyway, but the coordinated effort left an indelible impression. At an event sometime later, one of Shuler's staffers reported we had broken their machine and said something lame about Democrats killing trees. But six hundred voters had their voices heard. On a weekend. Outside of regular business hours.
With the advent of free, online e-fax services, organizers don't need an actual fax machine to mount a similar effort. People on their lists who cannot reach representatives by phone can send faxes from their computers or smart phones any time of the day or night, seven days a week. There is something satisfying in knowing at the other end a physical document spits out that a staffer has to handle and catalog. Since I find it difficult to break away for phone calls in the middle of the workday, I use e-faxing to send letters after hours. (Faxzero dot com is one I often use; the site even has links to House and Senate fax numbers.)
Light 'em up.