Pulling Back the Curtain: An Inside Look at Capitol Hill Advocacy
To the average American, the image of Capitol Hill implies exclusivity. The impression that the Hill is an exclusive club of government officials in suits doing things too important for ordinary citizens to comprehend upholds the idea that our democracy is inaccessible for citizen participation. There is a mystique about the Hill, and because of my impression of its exclusivity, I have always held the perspective that the Hill was reserved for those of some political importance. As a 20-year-old intern with no political or advocacy experience, I definitely would not put myself in that category. But being given the opportunity to visit the Hill to shadow a meeting with Senate staffers for the purpose of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program advocacy opened my eyes beyond this limited view and created within me a much deeper connection and familiarity with the political process.
Leaders in the community tax preparation field gathered for the two-day Taxpayer Opportunity Network Steering Committee (NSC) meeting at Prosperity Now on June 11th and 12th. After much fruitful discussion, the meeting concluded with Hill visits to advocate for the VITA Permanence Act as well as the Refund to Rainy Day Savings Act. VITA has been instrumental in providing millions of middle- and low-income earners with free tax preparation for 50 years. Though the impact of VITA programs may often go unnoticed, the numbers speak to how VITA’s reach has transformed the nation. With 1.8 billion in refunds, over 3,700 sites nationwide and an accuracy rate of 98%, VITA’s necessity is undeniable.
The Hill visits came at an opportune time as the Taxpayer First Act, which included VITA Permanence language was being considered in the Senate. Making VITA permanent ensures its continued availability to those who depend on it. The VITA Permanence Act officially codifies VITA into law, ensuring that millions of taxpayers continue to have access to free tax filing services. But the need for VITA goes beyond the provision of a free product. VITA programs also facilitate asset building for low-income individuals through access to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which helps households’ financial stability.
Members of the NSC and Prosperity Now Staff were divided into groups according to their state affiliations to visit their respective senators. Having members of the NSC who were directly connected to VITA on the ground level made our advocacy efforts more authentic as they were able to relay anecdotes, expound on their real-life experiences and show their connection to the legislation in a convincing and authentic way.
So, with Millions of taxpayers’ financial futures on our minds, we entered the Senate offices with intention. Our first stop was Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) office to meet with his tax staffer. Equipped with Prosperity Now’s Scorecard data on Florida as well as VITA-specific data, we expounded on the need for VITA support and the role it plays in Floridian communities. Though we sensed a lack of enthusiasm from the staffer we still managed to convey the importance of the VITA program. Our next stop was Senator Rick Scott’s (R-FL) office, where our proposals were much more well received. The staffer was attentive, receptive and asked many relevant questions to show that she was engaged which, in turn, fostered a much more energized discussion. After all, there is really no excuse not to support a program that enhances the financial well-being of your state’s residents.
Two days after the visit, it was announced that the Taxpayer First Act (including VITA Permanence) passed Congress, providing up to $30 million in funding for VITA. As an intern just two weeks into my position, my knowledge of VITA was extremely limited. But by just placing my foot in the door of this experience I learned so much about its impact. Even though the extent of my involvement was shadowing a meeting, it was encouraging to actually see real results. The hard work of TON, NSC and VITA Champions finally paid off, and I was honored to be able to witness it.
My biggest takeaway from the experience is this: our political participation is important—and, yes, our impact may appear small—but tangible results are just around the corner. Advocacy is not dead, so as opportunities arise to endorse and promote programs and policies you care about, call your members of Congress. Your voice matters.