Last week’s midterms were good for Team Red. The GOP took back the Senate to gain control of both houses of Congress, extended the number of governorships they hold to 31 (with Alaska still too close to call), and now control 30 state legislatures compared to just 11 for the Democrats (the rest are divided or, in the case of Nebraska, officially nonpartisan).
So how will the post-election political landscape shape public policies relevant to Catholic social teaching in the next few years? Here are some brief thoughts for ten issue areas. You will note I have shamelessly ducked the fraught question of prioritizing them by merely listing them alphabetically.
In spite of last week’s disproportionally conservative electorate, personhood amendments to state constitutions failed by wide margins in Colorado and even strongly-pro-life South Dakota, indicating such maximalist strategies still have little chance of success. President Obama will also veto pro-life legislation, such as a ban on abortions after twenty weeks, that might come out of the new Congress. On the other hand, greater Republican control of state legislatures should produce a number of restrictions on abortion across the country, just as state-level GOP gains did in 2010. Such an incremental approach can have at least a modest impact on abortion rates and help build a culture that protects the life of unborn persons. However, as we will see below, progress on other factors that can also reduce abortion rates, such as better healthcare coverage for poor women and children or higher wages at the bottom of the income scale for women and men alike, is less likely with Republican gains at the state and national levels.
The Death Penalty and Criminal Justice Reform
The number of people executed in the United States has been on a gradual decline over the last decade or so. Last week’s elections are unlikely to suddenly reverse this trend, though they won’t accelerate it either. The prospects for national abolition of capital punishment remain remote. More encouraging is a drop in support for harsh prison sentences for non-violent crimes, especially within the conservative movement that has long championed them. While voters in solidly Democratic California passed an initiative moving toward more humane sentencing policies last week, it is possible more states, even Republican ones, will follow in the next few years, and some bipartisan sentencing reform efforts—led, for example, by Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Cory Booker in the Senate, could become federal law.
Republican control of more state governments will likely extend recent trends toward making voting more difficult for certain groups in an attempt to lower Democratic turnout in elections. While study after study confirms American elections do not have a problem with voter impersonation at local polling places, an increasing number of states are requiring types of identification documents that certain demographic groups—the poor, people of color, the disabled, naturalized citizens, college students—are statistically less likely to already have in their possession. Recent decisions to restrict early voting and shorten polling hours on Election Day have the same purpose and are likely to spread to more states.
Economic Justice and Worker Rights
While Catholic social teaching calls for policies that respond to problems such as poverty and economic inequality by redistributing wealth, strengthening the safety net, guaranteeing a living wage, and protecting the rights of workers to unionize, the midterm election results will likely push at least somewhat in the opposite direction. Stalemate between Congress and President Obama should lock in the status quo and prevent any progress on these issues at the national level. Greater Republican control of state governments will increase the likelihood of tax policies favoring the wealthy, cuts in social services, and anti-union legislation. One exception may be the minimum wage. Public support for increasing it has been growing, and five states—including conservative Nebraska, Alaska, Arkansas, and South Dakota—voted to raise theirs through ballot initiatives last week. Some cities and states will likely continue raising theirs, but Republican elected officials, who usually oppose such increases even as rank and file members of their party are more sympathetic, will probably resist them in states they now control.
Policies to reduce pollution and resource depletion have become less likely in the wake of last week’s elections. In particular, the midterms increased the number of elected officials who deny humans are causing climate change, or who believe it but oppose doing anything in response. The president may take additional executive actions in this area, but more ambitious policies, such as a carbon tax, are unlikely.
Driven largely by external events and an area where the president exercises significant discretion, the midterm elections are unlikely to have much if any impact on foreign policy for better or worse.
Control of both houses of Congress will still not be enough for Republicans to repeal Obamacare as a whole given the president’s veto, though the Supreme Court has just given itself another shot at dismantling it next summer by withdrawing the subsidies that help millions of people formerly without access to healthcare now afford it. Millions of others are still without such access because many Republican controlled states have turned down the federal government’s offer to pay almost all the costs of covering more poor people under Medicaid in their state. The midterms make this less likely to change and may now mean even more poor families’ losing their coverage. Aside from issues of access to medical treatment, many contemporary religious liberty issues center on healthcare policies. At the federal level, the midterms should make little difference with continued divided government and such issues largely in the hands of the courts, but Republican gains at the state level might result in important protections for religious liberty added to particular state laws in the area of healthcare policy.
Comprehensive reform of our immigration system along the more humane lines Catholic social teaching suggests was unlikely before the midterms and is even more so now. In addition to reluctance to give the president a landmark achievement to end his second term, the GOP Congress has enough anti-immigration members to block any real progress on this issue aside from what the president can do on his own through executive action. Arizona-style laws targeting immigrants may become more prevalent with Republican gains at the state level, but it is also possible that momentum for such laws has already crested.
The movement to allow doctors to assist terminally ill patients in taking their own lives has been a slow one; only 5 states now permit it. While not a high-profile issue in most states, legislative action to reverse such policies in some states that do already have it or to stop its spread to some additional ones should be helped by Republican gains in the midterms.
While the legal right of same-sex couples to civil marriage has spread quickly in recent years, enjoying growing popular support and a string of judicial victories, Catholic social teaching opposes it (full disclosure: this is the one issue on this post’s list where your author is unable to affirm Catholic doctrine). While a recent decision upholding several state bans by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals may force the Supreme Court to weigh in on the question, the midterm elections are unlikely to influence court decisions or change the larger momentum in favor of same-sex marriage. Indeed, as support for same-sex marriage rights spreads and opposition increasingly becomes a liability for GOP candidates, expect it to be quietly dropped from the list of “non-negotiables” cited by conservative Catholic groups. Growing popular support, however, will mean religious liberty rights for individuals and organizations who still object to same-sex marriage will remain important, something Republican gains at the state level can help advance.
So overall it looks like a mixed bag. The good/bad news is that public policies that undermine/support Catholic social teaching tend to happen gradually and incrementally. No one election advances the ball very far either way. That’s why we’ll do it all over again in two years, this time with a new president thrown in for added fun.
David Carroll Cochran is Professor of Politics and Directs the Archbishop Kucera Center at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His latest book is Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis Books, 2014).
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