With Marches, Progressives Enter the Tax Reform Debate

414_Trump Palm Beach
President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 13, 2017. Yuri Gripas/REUTERS

Tens of thousands of Americans are expected to turn out for Tax Day marches Saturday to protest Donald Trump's refusal to release his tax returns. And while there's little hope their pressure will prompt the president to reconsider his controversial decision to keep those financial records private, organizers and leading Democrats also aim to use the rallies as an opening salvo in the national tax reform debate that's expected to dominate much of the spring and summer.

RELATED: Americans Still Want to See Trump's Tax Returns

Tax policies "lack a certain sexiness as a cause," one of the march's national organizers, Maura Quint, concedes. But she and others on the executive committee are hoping that the progressive anger over Trump and his lack of transparency can help launch the discussion about tax fairness and economic justice, issues that are implicit in the debate over how to structure the U.S. tax code. "We're hoping … this can kind of push those things to the forefront of discussion," says Quint, "and make it clear as well, to all politicians not just Trump, that this is something that the American people do care about."

The idea for the march sprung, like much of the #Resistance organizing that's happened since Trump's election, out of social media. A day after the January 21 Women's Marches, which drew millions of protesters in a multinational show of fury against Trump's inauguration, two private citizens in different parts of the country tweeted calls for another protest. "Trump claims no one cares about his taxes. The next mass protest should be on Tax Day to prove him wrong," tweeted Frank Lesser, a comedy writer who formerly worked for Comedy Central's Colbert Report. That was echoed by Vermont Law School Professor Jennifer Taub, who urged a nationwide #showusyourtaxes protest on April 15. Their messages quickly went viral.

Quint, who helps nonprofit groups plan events and writes comedy on the side, remembers retweeting Lesser's tweet, along with "some stupid joke." Then, after seeing the enormous response the idea was generating online, she reached out to Lesser, who she knows through comedy circles, to offer to help plan it. "People started Facebook page events for different cities, on their own," Quint says. Organizers began reaching to the various tax march planners around the country to suggest "we should all do this together; we'll be much more powerful that way," she recounts. As of now, there are tax marches planned in 180 cities and counting.

The planners are realistic about the chances the president, after refusing to release his tax returns throughout the 2016 campaign, will suddenly have a change of heart now. It was yet another precedent Trump bucked during his unorthodox run to the White House—though there's no law requiring it, all major party candidates over the past several decades have voluntarily released their returns. Where the protests can have more of an impact is directing the anger many feel about the president hiding his tax returns toward the policy debate that will affect all of theirs. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that a movement calling itself the Tea Party launched on Tax Day, 2009, around the issue of taxes and government spending.

Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House have made clear tax reform is a top priority for 2017. Hours after House Republicans canceled a vote on their health care proposal, Trump told reporters at the White House that, "We will probably start going very, very strongly for the big tax cuts and tax reform, that will be next." Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin even promised the government would pass a new tax law by August, although most GOP leaders now admit there's no way they'll meet that timeline.

In fact, they are still toiling over what basic elements to include in their proposal, with various factions within the party battling over exactly how to cut corporate and personal income taxes and how to make up the loss in government revenue that will result. House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, unveiled a tax reform blueprint last year that would slash corporate and personal tax rates. House Republicans proposed paying for those cuts via deep cuts in Medicaid funding and by instituting a new tax on imported goods, known as a border adjustment tax. The former, however, was reliant on Republicans passing their Obamacare repeal bill, which is currently stalled. And Republicans are deeply divided on the border adjustment tax proposal.

The White House, meanwhile, has been noncommittal about that and many other provisions, even as Trump administration officials insist they will be the ones to determine the ultimate shape of the bill. "I think it's not clear what the White House strategy is on this, as you know they're capable of floating trial balloons every 24 hours and then deflating them," says Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the leading Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax policy. Wyden attended a meeting with the president on trade and taxes in March, alongside Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, his Republican counterpart on the Finance Committee, and Congressmen Kevin Brady and Richard Neal, the House's leaders on tax policy. He insists there are are opportunities for bipartisan agreement on tax reform—"Americans of all political philosophies understand how broken the system is," he says.

But Democrats are sure to loathe most of what Republicans are considering on taxes, given that their proposals would disproportionately benefit the wealthy, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The challenge for progressive critics is helping the public understand what's at stake, amidst all the arcane tax code talk. Wyden recounts how, at a recent town hall he hosted in Oregon, some people asked him about the tax changes Republicans had proposed in their repeal of Obamacare, and what the impact would be. "I said, well, take a look at your paycheck," which shows deductions for the Medicare tax. Under the now-defunct GOP bill, the only people who would get a cut in their Medicare tax were couples making over $250,000 a year, he pointed out. Wyden's listeners, he says, were "beside themselves." Trump, himself, is also a powerful symbol of the way the wealthy are able to game the current tax code—the limited records that have been made public suggest he could have used several loopholes to dramatically reduce his own taxes.

It's those kinds of tax fairness issues that progressives are now hoping to rally people around as the reform debate heats up. One of the speakers in Washington, D.C. will be a fast food worker and "Fight for $15" campaigner named Priscilla Evans, who, in prepared remarks, plans to talk about how the fast-food industry underpays its employees, forcing them to rely on taxpayer-funded public assistance. The labor union-backed Fight for $15, which is campaigning to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour around the country, is just one of roughly 70 progressive groups that have signed up as national co-sponsors of the march. Wyden and several Democrats in Congress are also scheduled to speak at the D.C. rally, which kicks off at the Capitol before marchers make their way down past the White House to the Lincoln Memorial.

Wyden says he plans to point to Trump to make the case the current system is broken. "You'd like to think the president would say, 'hey, I'd like to be part of the solution rather than contribute to the problem,' which is what he is doing by breaking with 40 years of history and possibly … taking advantage of some of the worst and most offensive abuses in the system."