Flanked by Columbia City restaurant owner Theo Martin and Safeway checker Natasha West Baker, Sen. Patty Murray occupies Elliott Bay Books on Capitol Hill this morning.
Less than 24 hours after US Senate Republicans filibustered to stop the Democrats from broadening a payroll tax cut (the proposal would have extended last year's payroll tax cut, which originally reduced the tax from 6.2 to 4.1 percent, and expanded it, lowering the rate to 3.1 percent), US Sen. Patty Murray flew home and held a press conference with small business owners and low-wage workers at Elliott Bay Books in Capitol Hill to bash the Republicans as defenders of the millionaires.[pullquote]"The Republicans are protecting the wealthiest Americans today, and that's just not right.—Sen. Patty Murray [/pullquote]
"We were basically asking the wealthiest Americans—the millionaires and billionaires—to pay just a little bit more so that the 160 million Americans who are counting on this will get a critical tax cut," Murray said of the Democrats' bill, which would have been financed by a 1.9 percent temporary tax on people whose make more than $1 million a year. Murray defended the bill on the senate floor on Wednesday. It failed on Thursday.
Murray, wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes (of course), said senate Republicans were only "focused on protecting those millionaires and billionaires. I think that's wrong. That is the kind of trickle-down philosophy that has failed our middle class, brought our economy to its knees and cost us millions of jobs."
And, hitting a note that's in heavy rotation in the Democratic playlist these days—a sign that the Occupy Movement has had a huge impact—she made the same class-conscious appeal that President Obama broke out in Kansas this week, explaining that, for example, a family earning $55,000 a year would have gotten a break of $1,700.
"That's real money for people," Murray said. "I know that doesn't seem like a lot of money for my colleagues back in D.C., but for families here in Washington State it means a lot. To pay for that tax cut, what our bill did was call on the wealthiest Americans to pay just a little bit more of their fair share."
Republicans are promoting an alternative plan to extend the tax cut—funding it with a three-year pay freeze on government workers and cutting the federal work force by 10 percent; ideas that were recommended by an Obama-appointed commission. (The Republicans also want to tie the tax cut to moving forward with the controversial Keystone oil pipeline project that Obama postponed after environmentalists protested and to cuts to entitlement programs.)
The Republicans object to the Democratic version of the tax cut proposal because they say the tax on millionaires would hurt small businesses; House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) for example, called the surtax---which, again, would only apply to income over $1 million--- a “job-killing tax hike on small businesses.” Republicans point out that a Treasury Department study found that 392,000 taxpayers reported incomes exceeding $1 million in 2007. Of those returns, 331,000 of those returns included business income, and 311,000 were "business owners."
However, a recent Washington Post article puts the GOP claim that the tax on the rich hits small businesses in context: "That income is concentrated among a very small group of small businesses. The tax would only affect about 1 percent of those the Treasury Department classifies as 'small business owners.'"
Regardless, Washington State Republican Party Chair Kirby Wilbur told PubliCola: "If Senator Murray is really concerned about relief for the middle class, she should ... back the Republicans' alternative to the payroll tax bill—which does not increase taxes on the very people who create the jobs our middle class is in desperate need of."
Murray brought in a supporting cast to dispute the Republican claim that the tax would hit small businesses.[pullquote]"I'm here because I know that I'm the 99 percent"—Theo Martin, owner of Island Soul restaurant in Columbia City.[/pullquote]
"I'm here because I know that I'm the 99 percent," Theo Martin, owner of the Island Soul Caribbean restaurant in Columbia City, said. "I am a small business. ... The one percent group who says, 'keep the money with us because it's going to hurt you if you tax me'---I know that's not true. It's almost like getting a raise when my employees see [the extra] money in their check. When they can go out and spend money in their community, they do."
Peter Aaron, the owner of Elliott Bay Books, also tried to reclaim small business from being part of the GOP sound bite. "Republicans are trying to obstruct this measure with claim, of all things, that it constitutes a tax on small businesses," said Peter Aaron. "Perhaps they mistake $1 million in sales volume for net earnings, but that's probably giving them too much credit."
He concluded: "Who is so adamantly opposed to this tax on millionaires? I think the answer is people that are the primary bankrollers of Republican campaign funds. I do not know a single small business owner who makes $1 million or anywhere near that a year. And to the maybe one in 100 who does, I'd say, God bless you and I'm sure you'll be very happy to do your share and lift the burden from your customers and your employees.
"Is this beneficial to small businesses? You bet it is. In two ways. It brings customers back into our stores that have some money to spend, and it helps our employees."
I asked Aaron how much Elliott Bay earns. (It seems to me Elliott Bay is always crowded when I'm there dropping $15 on a paperback!) So just how outrageous was the Republican claim? "It's laughable by a factor of 10," Aaron said.
The Post elaborates:
Just about 1 percent of those Treasury categorizes as “small business owners” would be affected by the Democrats’ proposed millionaire’s tax —about 273,000 in total. That number drops even further—to 51,000—if you define “small business owners” as those earning at least 25 percent of income through their firm.
Such findings are in line with independent analyses of small business “millionaires” as well. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center—a partnership between Brookings and the Urban Institute—calculates that 1 percent of those reporting business income via individual returns in 2011 would be subject to the millionaire’s tax, about 340,000 in total.
Murray also brought workers with her, including Natasha West Baker, a mother of four kids who started out by informing the camera crews and press, "I work at your local Rainier Valley Safeway.
I'm going to quote her at length because what I found newsworthy about this fairly routine and otherwise prefab news conference was just how Zuccotti Park the rhetoric was.
What Senator Murray and President Obama are doing is asking the wealthiest one percent to help those of us who are barely getting by as is in this economy, who have seen our hours be drastically decreased and have wondered every day how we're going go feed our kids or get to work or make Christmas happen. One percent to a billionaire is lunch or a nice vacation. Three percent in my paycheck, an extra $1,000 dollars a year, to be honest, is what my car cost. My car cost $1,500 dollars. An extra $1,000 dollars is real money. That's the difference between my family having transportation or not. That's the difference between whether or not we eat, or whether we decide we're going to eat noodles this week.
For the billionaires out there and the Republicans who want you to keep giving them tax breaks, all I have to say is, Really? Really? We've been paying our fair share for a long time, as well as some of yours. It's about time that the people who have helped build this country and make it great started getting a little bit back, because we've been paying the way for a lot of people for a really long time, and it's off our backs that you've been getting wealthy.
Murray then took the mic, saying, "I'm taking her back to DC with me."
I asked Murray, given that the Republicans have blocked the tax cut twice now, if—despite the passionate testimony at Elliott Bay—there was any real chance of extending the tax break. Murray said she was at the White House on Wednesday with the president and "he said he is going to keep us in session to get this passed and the days are running out and we're running up on the holiday, but he's giving us his holiday to go to Hawaii and told us he's going to keep us there until we get it passed."
Okay, but seriously, are there any new votes for it? Do the Democrats have any new angles to play? I asked. Murray tacked back to the Occupy-style rhetoric.
"I think the angle or wedge to get this passed is for the American public to understand what is happening," she said, "that their paycheck is going to be smaller in just a few short weeks for one reason, the Republicans are protecting the wealthiest Americans today, and that's just not right. "
Immediately after the press conference, as I biked back downtown to my office, I passed by Seattle Central Community College, just a block away from Elliott Bay Books, where Seattle's crew of Occupy protesters were taking down the last of their tents after being evicted from their encampment.