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?"