Sewell: State deserves to be heard on tax bill

Published 8:46 pm Monday, December 18, 2017

By Rep. Terri Sewell | Sewell represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional district.

For many of us in Alabama, Senator-elect Doug Jones’ victory last Tuesday meant much more than a political victory.

As I said on the campaign trail, help is on the way – help defending health care, help advocating for real tax reform, and help fighting for our state’s working families. But as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rush to pass a hastily-written tax bill, that help may arrive too late for the most important vote this Congress will take.

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It was nearly a year ago when now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions vacated one of Alabama’s two senate seats, making way for this year’s special election. In his place, Sen. Luther Strange was appointed to the Senate by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, who has since resigned.

This year, our unelected senator has taken 258 votes, including consequential changes to the tax code, sweeping changes to the healthcare system, and lifetime appointments of federal judges. The decisions the Senate has made this year will impact Alabama families for generations to come, but the voters of Alabama did not have a duly-elected voice in the Senate when those decisions were made.

Also at stake are the issues the Senate has failed to take up for a vote in the first place.

This year, Congress let funding expire for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and for Perkins federal student loans. The lives of “dreamers” – children of undocumented immigrants who are working to make the United States stronger – also hang in the balance.

While there are no do-overs for votes that Senator-elect Doug Jones was not present for, the Senate can show that it still shares basic democratic values by holding off consideration of the GOP tax bill until our duly elected Senator is seated.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should understand the need to wait for Jones’ swearing in. After all, he made the same argument when former Sen. Scott Brown won a special election for one of Massachusetts’s Senate seats. As the Senate considered passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, McConnell urged the Senate to delay the legislation until Brown could be seated for a vote.

There was even bipartisan agreement that, after Brown won his election in Massachusetts, he should be a part of any further healthcare votes going through the Senate. “The Senate certainly shouldn’t try to jam anything through until Scott Brown is seated,” President Barack Obama told a reporter the day after Brown won his special election. “The people in Massachusetts spoke. He’s got to be part of that process.”

In 2016, after Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the Senate Majority Leader delayed any vote on the Supreme Court’s vacancy until after the 2016 elections.

“The American people are perfectly capable of having their say on this issue,” said McConnell, “so let’s give them a voice.”

Alabama voters are very capable of having a say in our national decisions as well, and last Tuesday they showed that they wanted their voices to be heard by turning out in record numbers for our state’s special election.

Suspending consideration of the GOP tax bill until Senator-elect Doug Jones is seated also gives our lawmakers and the public a chance to read the tax bill before it gets voted on.

During the last Senate vote on the tax bill, the text of the bill wasn’t revealed until the night of, with last-minute changes written into the bill’s margins.

If this Congress is serious about real reform, the tax bill should be considered in a deliberative and democratic process where the public’s voice is heard. The Senate can begin that process now, by seating Jones before moving the bill forward in the Senate.

For working families in Alabama, help and a voice in the U.S. Senate, is on the way. Out of respect for my constituents and the democratic process, I urge the Senate to delay action on the tax bill until our state’s newest Senator has a seat at the table.