I wasn’t able to do a “Hill visit” today, but I was still curious about the advice CFED would give to those headed out to meetings with legislative staff.
Merle Lawrence of Levi Strauss Foundation gave an introduction, thanked the participants, and said she believes that public service advocacy work is absolutely essential, that participants would be doing their American duty by conducting such advocacy.
Then Rosalyn Crain and Carol Wayman, CFED’s Legislative Manager and Senior Legislative Director respectively, took over this first session of the conference with strategies on lobbying for an asset building agenda.
Carol said that 43 states would be represented in today’s Capitol Hill assault, with over 350 people getting on the buses to go up to the Hill for a total of more than 800 meetings!
She noted that the congressional staff that people will meet with are primarily the tax policy people, so the visits should focus on support for 4 matched savings/investment account acts that are built around the tax code. With what is going to be a huge tax bill next session (as we approach the expiration of President Bush’s tax cuts), there will be major opportunities for new tax legislation, and we want that legislation to include savings opportunities. And just as important as the bills themselves, we need to build strong relationships with those legislative staff.
In the spirit of relationship-building, Carol gave some thoughts on how to open up the conversation. Since almost everyone in the room operated an IDA program, participants were encouraged to talk about their IDA savers and the inspiring stories or data from the program.
In the hill visit packets, the participants were given a list of 18 different bills that relate to savings and asset development, and people were told to look for whether their legislator has co-sponsored any of the proposed bills so they could thank the staffmember for their support of key issues.
The packet also contained a picture of the legislator for that district, the location of the meeting, and many other items to help people be prepared for the visit, including talking points about the 4 major bills that CFED encouraged people to focus on.
The most important piece of advice, in my opinion, was to be sure to ask directly for the legislator’s support for those 4 major acts. As a long-time fundraiser, I know how important it is to get to the ask. The same is true in advocacy. Yes, you want to build rapport, but at a certain point you need to make it clear what you want. If you ask politely but with conviction, they’ll respect you for having a very clear objective and telling them so. I love that CFED provides a form in each packet so that at the end of the visit, when people return to the conference, they can indicate whether or not that member of congress is likely to support the different pieces of legislation based on the response to asking them for co-sponsorship of each bill. Everyone is strongly encouraged to turn in that form when they return to the conference so CFED will have a better understanding of the positions or hesitations of various legislators whose support could ultimately be critical to passing any of these bills.
Then Rosalyn told us a bit about the bills themselves, with some input from Justin King of New America Foundation.
1. ASPIRE Act, HR 3740, would provide a $500 government contribution for each child born in the U.S., plus a match for low-income children. So far, only a small handful of legislators have co-sponsored it, but the big push will be in the next session of congress. On the Senate side, it hasn’t yet been introduced, but at the appropriate time Sen. Schumer is primed to introduce the legislation.
2. Saver’s Bonus Act would expand the opportunity for low-income people to invest in savings vehicles from their tax return, and it would provide a match for people up to 120% of the EITC eligibility who choose to save in one of those approved ways. Looking for additional co-sponsors in the Senate (NJ Senator Menendez is the lead sponsor), and it still needs to be introduced in the House.
3. Savings for Working Families Act would support major expansion of IDAs by providing a tax credit vehicle for financial institutions to match up to $500/year for an IDA saver and receive a credit for it. This is intended to relieve a lot of the burden for raising local match (it wouldn’t replace AFI, but would complement it). Carol suggested that participants should probably lead the meeting with this bill, since it relates so directly to the work on the ground by IDA programs (which is what the majority of the participants are most involved in).
4. Retirement Savings for Working Families Act, HR 2724, would expand the “Saver’s Creditby making it fully refundable, which would allow it to reach 60 million low-income people. Carol reminded people that although this is thought of as a retirement bill, those savings can be tapped for home ownership. So if you get people into a 401k with an employer, utilize an employer match, and then get the Saver’s Credit on top of it, a person can put together some real money pretty for a modest personal savings contribution each year. And they still have the right to “borrow” up to $10,000 from the retirement account as a one-time home ownership investment, and funds can also be borrowed to use for higher education costs.
Someone smartly asked how to respond to the “How will you pay for it?” question. Carol suggested that we can remind the congressional staff that we’re talking about relatively small amounts of money for these bills serving low-income people compared to the $100 billion-plus annually for mortgage interest and property tax deductions (which many lower-income people don’t get to take advantage of), and $100 billion-plus for retirement account support through tax deductions (once again low-income people often aren’t getting much benefit). For families with household income over $1 million, the asset subsidy is about $167,000 per year. If you earn under $20,000 per year, your asset subsidy is under $3 per year (the earned income tax credit counts as an income subsidy in that calculation, I suppose because it’s not directly tied to ownership of an asset).
Justin King pointed out that the Saver’s Bonus Act hasn’t been “scored” yet for exact cost analysis, but their rough estimate is that bill will cost $1-3 billion in total over 10 years., a fairly low cost item compared to most of what’s in the tax code.
Carol noted that they’re so focused on tax-related strategies because for every $1 dollar in asset-building discretionary funds (AFI, Office of Refugee Resettlement, etc.), there are over $500 in tax code-related asset subsidies (most of which go to higher-income people, as noted above).
She also reminded participants that although they want to be prepared, they shouldn’t feel that they have to know how to answer every question; they can refer the congressional staff to CFED and New America for more information, and try to bring the conversation back to the importance of getting some assistance to low-income people and the stories they can share of what a difference it makes.