Over the past two years, we've really tried to keep you up to date on Birddog Nation, that loose but resilient network of activists from all over the country who have confronted lawmakers in town halls and at other events nationwide, pinning them down on their positions and demanding promises from them. The birddoggers have also stormed the halls of Congress again and again in the Trump era at key moments. They first emerged in 2017 to save the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) from a GOP Congress intent on destroying it even though countless Americans currently rely on it (narrow success!). Later that year, they tried unsuccessfully to stop the unfair Trump tax plan.
In 2018, they were back in action, swarming Capitol Hill in an effort to thwart the confirmation of alleged sexual assault perpetrator Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Despite dramatic last-minute elevator confrontations with key senators, not to mention what seemed like endless days of disrupting the hearings and occupying the halls of the Senate, the birddoggers also failed in that regard.
But arguably, they succeeded in riling up anti-Trump, anti-harassment, anti-patriarchy anger to a whole new level that spilled over into sweeping wins for Democrats -- among them, many women, particularly women of color and religious minorities -- in the November midterms. Democrats now control the House, if not the Senate, meaning that imminent new threats to Obamacare are off the table and Dems now have at least some levers of power to play with going into 2019 and 2020.
Not surprisingly, the birddoggers -- who are coordinated by veteran AIDS activists Jennifer Flynn Walker of the Center for Popular Democracy and Paul Davis of Housing Works (with additional support from Housing Works' Charles King and Jaron Benjamin) -- have big plans for using their techniques to pressure the new Congress into inching toward universal health care in the years ahead. They will also push a special Ryan White CARE Act–inspired bill to address the opioid epidemic, as well as a drug-pricing-cap bill.
Flynn Walker and Davis think these things are possible even with a divided Congress and a hostile president. We chatted with them to find out exactly why -- and what we can expect from their birddog nation in the coming year. (Please note, their website will be updated early next year.)
Tim Murphy: Okay folks, so you've worked hard rallying countless people to D.C. over and over again the past two years. What's the plan going forward?
Jennifer Flynn Walker: In 2017 and 2018, we were doing a lot of defensive work. Now we've been able to take back the House in a blue -- or really I should say a black and brown -- wave, thank God. I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass really progressive legislation. The presidential race will be crowded. I think Trump will have challengers [on the Republican side]. And we need that division among the Republicans. We managed to save Obamacare because the Republicans weren't 100% aligned. But after that, on taxes and Kavanaugh, they dug in and were unified.
But next year, we'll be focused heavily on using the early primary states and caucus states, where people are coming out of the woodwork to explore running for president, as an opportunity to advance a bill capping drug prices and another called the CARE Act, standing for Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency, which will be a bold public health response to the opioid and overdose epidemic. It's modeled on the 1990 Ryan White CARE Act that brought us treatment and services for people with HIV/AIDS.
TM: What are you seeking specifically on drug pricing?
JFW: There are already a few good bills out there, including one from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna. It says that we Americans should pay what other rich countries pay for their drugs, because currently we pay on average 30% more here for the same drugs because of a lack of price controls, and that we should have the right to revoke the drugmakers' patent monopoly if they refuse to bring down their prices here to the level of other rich countries. The price differential on new meds for cancer and hepatitis C is even more radical. There is momentum right now for bipartisan support on a bill like this.
TB: So what's the birddogger plan?
JFW: We're going to try to dramatically scale up the number of birddog trainings nationwide. Anyone anywhere who thinks they can pull together 15 to 20 folks for a training should contact us at email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org. We've trained over 4,000 people so far and, via their friends, brought in another 3,000 that we're going to try to get trained. We'll do an actual conference or retreat in early January, and then we'll start planning expeditions to the first four states that play in the presidential race -- New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada. Then the field really opens up after that, and we have states like Alabama and Louisiana with a very hungry pool of birddoggers. These folks have undertaken lots of actions in their own states without coordination from Paul or me. They've built a community, visiting each other on vacation, texting all the time.
TM: You don't think it's too early to start hitting states?
JFW: At this point, the person who might be the next president is doing events with maybe just five people surrounding them at a veterans affairs lunch at noon on a Thursday. If you open up the paper right now in Manchester, New Hampshire, you'll find Sen. Ben Sasse stopping in on his book tour, Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren coming through, with much more to come.
TM: What kind of birddogging questions do you have in mind for them?
Paul Davis: it's a work in progress, but in general, we'll ask, "If a drug company is charging more in the U.S. than in other rich countries, will you promise to revoke that patent monopoly to bring prices down? Such as featured in bills X, Y, or Z? Will you support single-payer health care or extending Medicare eligibility to cover everyone?"
JFW: And we'll ask about the opioid CARE Act. Such as, "Will you make sure that if there's a settlement with drugmaker Purdue over their role in promoting the opioid crisis, will you make sure that money goes into a flexible spending fund for treatment and safe-consumption sites?"
TM: Do you think Obamacare is safe for now?
JFW: Republicans will still try to do whatever they can to sabotage it, so if a bill like that starts to move, we'll put on pressure for the bill to strengthen Obamacare rather than dismantle it.
PD: Trump will almost certainly try to make more administrative changes to it, like continuing to approve state requirements that people work for Medicaid.
TM: To ask what might sound like a "duh" question: What is the point behind rallies and lobbying, especially when we did not really manage to take a bite out of Trump and Republicans until the midterms?
JFW: These are among the few tactics where you push to talk directly to the person who has the power. That's why we train people to plan birddogging carefully so they are asking four or five questions on the same issue. When you just ask one question, politicians have been trained to learn how to say nothing but make it sound like they answered you. But when you ask the second or third time, they start to give you their opinions and insight. They don't have these opportunities to learn from everyday people, as opposed to lobbyists. And you can see their thinking start to change, the more they learn.
PD: Plus, Democrats particularly are eager to do something on health care. They know that they were just swept into the House on the issue.
TM: But how can you expect to pass bills with a divided Congress and a hostile president?
PD: There is so much popular energy around controlling drug pricing and protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions. Republicans can either get behind those things or more of them can escort themselves out the door like they did in the midterms.
TM: But what about the really rural red parts of the country that were so hard to move in the midterms and led to Republicans actually gaining seats in the Senate?
JFW: As we talk about issues like the opioid epidemic and drug pricing and give people actual solutions, they'll start to realize how important it is to have government involved. If you knock on doors in rural Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Indiana, you can't not talk about the opioid epidemic. It affects everyone. It's like if you knocked on doors in the West Village in the 1980s, there was no avoiding talking about AIDS.
TM: You now have this new crop of progressives in the House like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Will you enjoin them in this activism?
JFW: Absolutely. Ocasio-Cortez actually signed up to do direct actions with us in the past. She was actually signed up to get arrested at our Families Belong Together action (against the border child separations), then she won her primary and was crushed by media. Also, staffers for some of the new congressmembers got arrested with us to save Obamacare in 2017 -- and some of them have birddogged. And now those people are driving the agenda. It's now a given that we're going to work on Medicare for All, whereas back when we were fighting to pass Obamacare, having a public option among the health plans came swiftly off the table. So progress is being made despite a few steps back with Trump and the 2017 Congress.
TM: It's well-documented that George Soros' Open Society Foundations gives the Center for Popular Democracy funding, but that CPD and Housing Works do not pay activists -- they cover their $50 bail if they get arrested, and they also might help with bare-bones bus, car, or plane expenses, plus lodging, for key actions in D.C. They also cover your salaries for doing this organizing work full-time. Yet Trump, Fox News, and others on the right have called all your protesters "paid activists," like they are walking away with money in their pockets. How do you feel about that?
JFW: People are always going to say something like that. But all we do is provide some structure and direction for the grassroots anger and energy that's out there. The groups MoveOn, Indivisible, and Working Families Party did a count that found about 100,000 people nationwide went to town halls to confront lawmakers in the first congressional recess after Trump's inauguration. Nobody reached out to all those people with an offer to pay them. Like I said, most of the birddoggers nationwide are really self-organized and have their own local and state listservs. A bunch of them are planning to spend their holidays at the border to protest U.S. treatment of the migrant crisis. All Paul and I did was say to them, "Maybe you should go do this."
PD: If your opponents aren't saying shit about you, you're not working hard enough.