POLITICS
12/08/2017 05:20 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2017

A Terminally Ill Progressive Activist Confronted Jeff Flake About The Tax Bill On A Flight

“For the rest of your life, you will be proud if you vote this bill down.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is due to retire in 2018, was confronted by Ady Barkan, a progressive leader with ALS, ab
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is due to retire in 2018, was confronted by Ady Barkan, a progressive leader with ALS, about his support for the tax bill.

A leading progressive activist with Lou Gehrig’s disease appealed to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to reconsider his support for the Republican tax bill during a flight to Phoenix on Thursday.

“I need you to make your vote match your principles, senator. And for the rest of your life, you will be proud if you vote this bill down,” said Ady Barkan, founding director of the Fed Up campaign, a group backed by the Center for Popular Democracy that pushes the Federal Reserve to set monetary policy that favors workers.

Flake, a fiscal conservative retiring in 2018, reportedly voted for the Senate tax bill on Saturday after receiving vague assurances from Republican leaders that Congress would soon act on providing permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, commonly known as Dreamers.

Barkan ― a 33-year-old who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, about a year ago ― was returning home to California by way of Phoenix on Thursday night after days of protesting the tax bill in the nation’s capital. Due to the disease’s progression, Barkan now requires the assistance of a cane and his speech is softer and more slurred.

He saw Flake on the flight to Phoenix when he was boarding and invited him to have a discussion with him about the bill.

Flake obliged and the pair engaged in a lengthy, civil debate over tax policy, economic growth, the debt, immigration reform, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and congressional procedure. Liz Jaff, a progressive political strategist traveling with Barkan, taped the entire exchange and posted it to Twitter in eight parts.

Barkan, who lives in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife and 18-month-old son, argued that the tax bill was personal for him, since the budget deficits it would generate would trigger congressional “paygo” rules requiring automatic spending cuts.  

The activist worried that given the authority to do so through paygo rules, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney might choose to cut Social Security Disability Insurance benefits that Barkan is likely to need as his condition worsens. Mulvaney has indeed boasted of prevailing on President Donald Trump to include cuts to the program is his budget proposal.

“What should I tell my son ― or what should you tell my son ― if you pass this bill and he cuts funding for disability and I can’t get a benefit later?” Barkan asked Flake.

Barkan made a similar argument on Tuesday outside the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Barkan was one of 133 demonstrators arrested for protesting the tax bill at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

Congress always ends up waiving paygo rules, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have made assurances that this time won’t be any different, Flake told Barkan.

“The leadership in Congress is saying one thing, and oftentimes, doing something else,” Barkan responded. “So are you supposed to trust them? Is my wife supposed to trust them that they are not gonna implement paygo when it’s the law of the land?” 

Later in the conversation, Barkan asked why Flake would not withhold his vote for the tax bill unless there was action on a bill providing Dreamers permanent status in the country.

Flake denied that the White House had offered him an “ironclad guarantee” on making permanent the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which would allow Dreamers to stay without fear of deportation.

To insist on the provision as a condition of his vote would not be “prudent,” Flake argued. “I’m working with the administration and with leadership on this, but I’m not going to say publicly, ‘Here’s my ultimatum on this or that.’”

However, the junior senator from Arizona said he had insisted on a longer phase-out period for the full “expensing” tax deduction allowing corporations to deduct the entire value of new equipment purchases from their taxes.

In an October Senate speech announcing his forthcoming retirement, Flake delivered a stinging rebuke to Trump in which he denounced the “appalling features of our current politics.” 

“There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican Party,” Flake said at the time.

The speech revisited themes Flake touched on in his August book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.

In one last attempt to persuade Flake to vote against the final tax cut bill, Barkan tried to appeal to the ideals Flake articulated in the speech, and Flake’s professed disgust with the rushed process that had created the bill. 

“Why not take your stand now?” Barkan implored him. “You can be an American hero. You really could ― if the votes match the speech.”

“Think about the legacy that you will have for my son and your grandchildren, if you take your principles and turn them into votes,” he added. “You could save my life. Please, please remember this conversation.”

Flake did not say whether the conversation would change his vote. But he did thank Barkan for the conversation in a subsequent tweet acknowledging Barkan’s “courage and knowledgeable advocacy.”

Below is a complete transcript of Flake’s conversation with Barkan:

Barkan: So many of us were so inspired by what you said, because there’s so much pressure on you. Partisanship is so strong. And [inaudible] it’s your whole career.

I was healthy a year ago. I was running on the beach. I’m 33. I have an 18-month-old son and out of nowhere I was diagnosed with ALS, which has a life expectancy of three to four years, no treatment, no known cure. I will probably need to go on a ventilator to live.

But this tax bill is probably going to force $400 billion in automatic paygo cuts. And Mick Mulvaney of the Office of Management and Budget is individually responsible for choosing how to implement those cuts. He thinks people on disability are just slackers. So what happens, what should I tell my son ― or what should you tell my son ― if you pass this bill and he cuts funding for disability and I can’t get a benefit later?

Flake: There’s nothing in the bill that cuts anything. But it would likely trigger paygo. Now paygo has been triggered several times by the deficit or by tax cuts, but it’s never been implemented. And both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have already issued statements saying they’re not going to initiate paygo, so ― or they’re gonna waive paygo.

Barkan: But didn’t they say, but you know ― and this is what was so amazing about your speech ― is that the leadership in Congress is saying one thing, and oftentimes, doing something else. They said taxes wouldn’t go up for the middle class ― it’s like 80 million families are gonna see tax hikes. They said it would be deficit neutral ― this is $1.5 trillion, $1 trillion dynamically scored.

So are you supposed to trust them? Is my wife supposed to trust them that they are not gonna implement paygo when it’s the law of the land?

Flake: Well, I’ve been around Congress ― I voted in favor of paygo. But it’s waived every time. That’s part of the problem, we never do do the cuts.

We’ve been knowing that we need to do corporate tax reform for a long time. We’re out of step with the rest of the world.

To be competitive, we’ve gotta have a more conducive tax code. I do think the economy will grow. We’ve got to get better than the 1.8-percent growth we’ve experienced over the last several years. If we don’t, there’s no way we can afford any of the social programs that we have. We’ve gotta have economic growth or we’ve gotta restructure the programs that we have, because we just aren’t bringing in enough revenue.

There’s no way we can impose enough taxes if there isn’t economic growth to fund the kind of government that we’re funding so we’ve gotta have growth.

Barkan: But don’t you think ― I mean, I totally agree on growth. I’ve been working on a campaign for the last few years to push the Fed to promote more growth and more jobs. But don’t you think, just on the budget question, even the joint tax committee says that this would add to the deficit, not reduce it, even dynamically scored?

Flake: Joint Tax came back dynamically and if you claim current policy, it gets the delta to I think about $471 billion, because there are certain things that they can’t dynamically score. What we’ve been saying is 0.4 percent economic growth will cover ― even if it were $1.5 trillion in additional deficit spending. So growth, growth is what we need. We’ve just got to have it.

With regard to the Fed, we’re almost at zero interest rates right now.

Barkan: [Without low] interest rates, it makes these deficits way bigger ―

Flake: It would, but in the end, though, we’ve got to sell our debt. So we can’t just print money, we’ve got to sell our debt. That’s been my concern all along. If we continue to run $600-billion deficits ― it’s scheduled to go up to $1 trillion in four years, I think, the markets are gonna respond and we can’t sell our debt.

We’ve got, certainly the growth that we’ve experienced in the last two quarters have been 3 percent. That’s good. I think that’s mostly because of regulatory policy. But we’ve got to have tax policy that’s conducive as well, and we’re plainly out of step around the world with corporate tax rates.

Barkan: I know that you are a strong supporter of the Dreamers and in your state there are tons of kids ―

Flake: Yeah, about 50,000.

Barkan: Who want to live in their home country of America and build a good life for themselves.

Flake: The DREAM Act ― I’m pushing it. It was one of the things I talked to the White House about, particularly Vice President Pence. I do think that we’re gonna get a solution. I hope it’s before March.

Barkan: Are you willing ― you know, they said that you were just promised a seat at the table.

Flake: No, I wasn’t ― there was no ironclad guarantee on DACA. It would not be prudent of me to tie a big tax bill to just a promise on DACA.

Something that I was more concerned about was the expensing provision, which has all of the expensing for five years and then it just dropped off to nothing. If we do something like that and we end up not sunsetting it, and that would have cost a lot. There’s $100 billion over 10 years. So I got a provision that smoothed that, a complicated formula that, adding three years to the five years. That was the big provision that I requested.

The DACA thing, I just ― I mean, I’m telling the White House, this is public, “Use any excuse you can!” Say you’ve gotta get to these votes on the tax bill, if the only way we do it is to do DACA. Whatever way we do it, we’ve gotta protect these kids.

Barkan: I totally agree with you but that means that you have to actually withhold your vote if we don’t get DACA. I mean, these kids are going to be sent back to their countries that they’ve never lived in where they may be persecuted. This is your moment, you gave this speech, you’re leaving in 12 months. Force them to get a clean DACA bill by Jan. 1 or March.

Flake: I can just tell you we are working on that a lot. I’m meeting with a bipartisan group that we’re working together ― we’re trying to get that fixed. I’d like to get that by the end of the year, but certainly we’ve got to get to it by March.

Barkan: But you’re not able or willing to say you won’t vote for the tax bill unless there’s a DACA fix?

Flake: I’m working with the administration and with leadership on this, but I’m not going to say publicly, “Here’s my ultimatum on this or that.”

Barkan: Millions and millions of kids rely on [the Children’s Health Insurance Program] for health insurance. Why not use the tax bill, which clearly has health insurance stuff on there, to reauthorize CHIP?

Flake: I don’t know the details of why CHIP can’t be part of the tax bill, but it is likely going to be a part of an omnibus bill going ahead, or some must-pass bill. I don’t know of any of my colleagues that are trying to cut CHIP.

Barkan: Do you feel ― are you happy with the process? I know the senior senator [from Arizona] has been unhappy.

Flake: No, no. None of us are happy with the process. The lack of regular order that’s been going on for years now. It’s been pretty dysfunctional ― the whole Senate.

Barkan: So why not take your stand now? You can be an American hero. You really could ― if the votes match the speech. Think about the legacy that you will have for my son and your grandchildren, if you take your principles and turn them into votes. You could save my life. Please, please remember this conversation.

Flake: You’re very up, you’re very up on everything.

Barkan: My life depends on it. I need you to make your vote match your principles, Senator. And for the rest of your life, you will be proud if you vote this bill down.

You will be proud. On your deathbed, I promise you, you will remember voting “no.” If you vote “yes,” you won’t feel better about yourself and your grandchildren won’t be proud. It’s your moment to be an American hero.

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