Shortly before the midterm elections last November, the respected Pew Research Center published poll results showing 72 percent of U.S. adults think religion’s influence in American life is declining, and 56 percent think that’s a bad thing.
Nearly half (49 percent) said they thought churches and religious groups should speak out on political and social issues. That was an increase of 6 percent in four years. And 32 percent said churches should endorse candidates for public office, up 8 percent in the same time.
These poll findings have no direct bearing on the political scene in Washington as the 114th Congress gets underway, but there’s an indirect relationship that is, or should be, matter for concern.
The numbers underscore a widely shared perception that the vision has gone out of American political life. A sense of noble purpose in pursuit of the common good has disappeared, replaced by an arid politics of partisan bickering and stalemate. When Americans say they want more religious involvement in public life, part of the reason apparently lies here.
Politics as usual
The early days of the new Congress brought conflicting signals regarding prospects for change. There was talk of compromise to seek agreement on legislation and do the nation’s business. President Barack Obama took the action of inviting congressional leaders to the White House. These pointers suggested a desire on all sides to turn over a new leaf.
It still could happen. But other signs suggest old habits will prevail. The White House fired off an early salvo threatening vetoes of bills the president opposes, while congressional Republicans moved to enact measures of just that sort.
One would authorize the Keystone XL pipeline carrying Canadian oil through the U.S. The other would cancel Obama’s executive action extending a reprieve to several million undocumented immigrants by withholding funding from the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for enforcing the presidential policy. The president has said he would veto both.
The 114th Congress is the first since the 109th Congress of 2005-06 in which Republicans are a majority in both houses. But that doesn’t translate into carte blanche for the GOP to do as it likes. Senate Democrats have the filibuster as a weapon for blocking legislation, with the presidential veto available as needed. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in Congress, something virtually impossible in this one.
Obama’s proposal in his State of the Union Address to raise taxes on wealthy Americans and lower them for the middle class is not expected to go anywhere in Congress but will instead become part of the Democrats’ message of economic populism in the run-up to the elections next year.
As that suggests, the realities of electoral politics also favor stalemate. With a lame duck president closing out his term and national elections coming in November 2016, all those involved have — or think they have — compelling reasons to place partisanship ahead of bipartisan agreement.
Reinforcing this state of affairs is the presence in the Senate of at least four potential contenders for their parties’ presidential nomination: Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, and Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
All this leaves little room for realistic hope of action on a raft of legislative issues. That includes high-priority GOP goals like repealing the Affordable Care Act, as well as matters of particular interest to many Catholics like immigration and abortion.
On Jan. 22 — the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and the day of the annual March for Life in Washington — the House voted 242-179 for a bill — the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act — cosponsored by Reps. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) and Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) that would permanently ban federal funding for most abortions. But the bill faces a likely Democratic filibuster in the Senate, and the White House says Obama will probably veto it if it comes to him.
The vote on the funding ban was a late substitute for a vote on a ban on abortions after 20 weeks that House Republican leaders originally had scheduled. Several women GOP members objected to a provision requiring rape victims, who would be exempt from the ban, to notify police of the rape, and the leadership pulled the bill, saying they would bring it back after changes are made.
Although passing bills knowing they won’t become law may seem pointless, it serves certain useful purposes. Constituents and interest groups are pleased, members of Congress are forced to commit themselves on the record by voting for or against, and the stage is set for possible enactment at a later date. Much of the legislative activity of the 114th Congress may be like this.
Supreme Court seats
The great unknown in this Congress is whether in the next two years the Senate will be called on to consider a new nominee or nominees for the Supreme Court.
With speculation circulating that the Supreme Court may soon be asked to consider one or more of the state laws restricting abortion enacted in the last few years, this is a matter of enormous importance to opponents and supporters alike. The same is true of course of groups with a stake in other issues headed to the court.
Up to now, Obama has presented the Senate with two nominees for Supreme Court seats, and the Senate has confirmed both: Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. Both are now part of the court’s four-member liberal bloc.
If given the opportunity for another nomination, the president almost certainly will name a third liberal. Whether the shift in the makeup of the Senate — from majority Democratic to majority Republican — will make any difference in either the nominee or the outcome of the confirmation process, and if so what that difference will be, are unanswerable questions now.
It’s reasonable to think that, even if contemplating retirement, the court’s current conservative members would all prefer, health permitting, to wait for the election of a new president rather than step down now and have Obama choose his successor. By the same token, liberal justices might see this as a good time to go, secure in the knowledge that a liberal president would make that choice.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.