House’s Trump working group hasn’t done much

Leading the resistance requires action, not words

LAST MARCH, a self-described “deeply worried” Speaker Robert DeLeo created a nine-member working group to guide responses to the “unprecedented actions” of the Trump administration.

The group, led by House Majority Leader Ron Mariano of Quincy and House Speaker Pro Tempore Pat Haddad of Somerset, consisted of Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing of Boston, Ways and Means Chair (and then Health Care Financing Chair) Jeffrey Sanchez of Boston, and an assortment of other chairs and vice chairs. Its mandate? Zeroing in on “impacts on economic stability, health care, higher education, and the state’s most vulnerable residents.”

The end of the legislative session is just a few weeks away. Setting aside the catch-all of “economic stability” for now, what has the House been up to on these key areas?

Health care: Donald Trump campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act, and he has been working to do just that. Although Republicans failed to repeal the ACA in Congress, Trump has been using the power of executive orders to try to hobble the functioning of the law.

Trump’s attempt at repealing the ACA’s birth control mandate, for example, is being held up in court, but it is good to know that Massachusetts residents can count on its continuation in our own state with the passage of the ACCESS bill last fall.

More broadly, Massachusetts had a low uninsurance rate even before the passage of the ACA, due to our 2006 health care reform law, but we still have the highest premiums in the country. As long as there are cost barriers to care, the promise of access and universality remains unfulfilled.

A few weeks ago, the House rushed through a modest health care reform bill. The hallmark of the bill is a one-time assessment on insurers and large hospitals to fund community hospitals for three years—although these assessments were cut by 25 percent (without debate) before final passage. What happens after three years is anyone’s guess.

The bill also contains steps to curb exorbitant costs, such as the elimination of out-of-network billing for emergency situations. But, ultimately, the bill just puts a band-aid on a broken system.

By contrast, the Senate hinted at a more systemic outlook with its embrace of a public option (allowing individuals to buy into MassHealth) and its commissioning of a study on the feasibility of a single payer system in Massachusetts.

Higher education. Trump has been rolling back protections for student borrowers and seeking to cut billions of dollars in student aid. It comes as no surprise that the founder of a fraudulent university would champion predatory practices.

However, the Massachusetts House has been largely missing in action when it comes to higher education. The House’s fiscal year 2019 budget contains $1.2 billion in total funding for higher education—a mere 0.1 percent over last year’s spending, itself a 14 percent cut since fiscal year 2001 in real terms. Viewed on a per-student basis, these cuts look even worse: we spend almost a third less per student than we did at the turn of the century.

This translates into higher tuition and higher fees, reducing access to public higher education and saddling students with debt after graduation.

Public higher education in Massachusetts is a major source of both economic opportunity and economic development—and we should treat it that way. But rather than taking innovative steps toward debt-free or fully free higher education, Massachusetts has been short-changing students.

Protecting the state’s most vulnerable. The demonization of immigrants was central to Trump’s presidential campaign, and it has been central to his presidency. Many of us have been horrified to see the images at the border where children, ripped away from their parents, are being held in cages. Families seeking asylum from grave violence are being treated like criminals and denied basic rights.

However, the crisis of family separation doesn’t just exist on the border. It exists here in Massachusetts, too. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been arresting people visiting offices to begin the process of gaining legal status, lurking outside court houses to arrest people, and terrorizing communities with deportation raids.

The Massachusetts House has met this crisis with inaction.

Last May, House leadership scuttled a bill to prevent state money from being used for agreements where state and local law enforcement are deputized as federal immigration agents. The Safe Communities Act, which builds on such a ban with guarantees of due process and limitations on the use of immigration detention, has been sent to a legislative graveyard for “further study.”

Activists, rightly, haven’t given up. In May, the Senate passed four key provisions of the Safe Communities Act in its budget: a ban on police inquiry about immigration status, a prohibition of the aforementioned contracts with ICE,  basic due process protections, and a guarantee that Massachusetts would not participate in any registry based on religion or nationality. A conference committee of six—including anti-Trump working group member Jeffrey Sanchez—will decide whether those provisions take effect.

The clock is ticking. It is unclear how often Speaker DeLeo’s anti-Trump working group has actually been meeting, but it is clear that they, as a group, have yielded no new policy proposals or bold initiatives for Massachusetts to lead the way for other states.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
If Massachusetts wants to be a leader in the resistance, they have to embrace bold policy, not just rhetoric. We have a few weeks left to see which they choose.

Jonathan Cohn is an editor and activist in Boston and the co-chair of the Issues Committee at Progressive Massachusetts.