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2020 Elections: Advocacy and Policy Topics to Track

2020 Elections: Advocacy and Policy Topics to Track

While the 2020 election has focused on the leadership styles of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, much of what hangs in the balance for November goes far beyond personalities.  

Crucial legislative priorities in areas such as immigration, climate change, gun control, energy, education and—arguably most important—America’s economic recovery will be shaped by the results. 

What follows are some highlights of what to expect on important issues—the issues advocacy pros are following—that turn on which party wins control of the presidency, the House and Senate. 

Economic Recovery

No other issue will dominate Washington after the election like the post-pandemic economy. Only months ago, the economy was the centerpiece of President Trump’s re-election strategy. Now, it is hobbled by the impact of COVID-19, with states still operating under isolation protocols and large swaths of industry shuttered. 

Unemployment, which was once a bragging point for Trump, has reached historic highs. The unemployment rate in February was among the lowest on record in the post-World War II era at 3.8 percent. It swelled to 14.7 percent in April before dropping slightly and was reported at 11.1 percent in June. Millions of people are out of work.

Biden is pushing an economic recovery plan that includes federally funded testing for people who have to return to work, guaranteed paid sick leave for workers affected by COVID-19 and a federally coordinated contact tracing workforce. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which mobilizes passionate advocates on both sides of the issue, could also gain traction with a Democratic Congress and Democratic president.

Trump has floated a range of proposals to spur job creation, such as a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and having the government buy years worth of plane tickets to help the airline industry with cash.

Companies—and sometimes their customers—in almost every industry strained by the pandemic will be seeking legislative and regulatory relief in Washington and state capitals—and they all have a wishlist. A robust digital advocacy program will be important, as it was when organizations were forced to protect their interests during the pandemic.

Infrastructure 

Roads, bridges, airports, waterways and other heavy infrastructure projects will almost certainly be key to any economic recovery plan. Both parties have been saying for years that they want to push big infrastructure projects, and the economic hardship brought about by the pandemic could be a catalyst for action.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which studies U.S. infrastructure, predicts that the country will under-invest in public projects by $2 trillion between 2016 and 2025. “Congress should make infrastructure investment a centerpiece of its immediate response and long-term economic recovery strategy,” the organization concluded in a report on the impact of the pandemic.  

The highway bill might be an indicator of what’s to come on infrastructure. The five-year bill is set to expire Sept. 30. If lawmakers don’t renew it this year, it might provide a vehicle to discuss infrastructure next year. Biden has also released a plan to combat climate change that calls for major investments in energy- and environment-related infrastructure (see below).

Police and Criminal Justice Reform 

This is an issue that has seen bipartisan action in recent years, notably passage of the First Step Act in 2018, which changed minimum mandatory sentencing and made other changes in an effort to reduce the U.S prison population. 

Yet, as the bill’s name implies, there is more work ahead. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and the protests that ensued across American gave rise to new efforts at police reform, such as banning choke holds; eliminating no-knock warrants; and provisions that would make it easier to prosecute officers. While the House passed a bill, the issue remains mired in the Senate, where lawmakers are arguing over key provisions. The legislation’s prospects this year are unclear. 

Moving forward, much may depend on the election. Trump signed an executive order that contained some provisions, such as a national database of officers that have been terminated or criminally convicted for their behavior. But his rhetoric has run toward “law and order” speeches and away from reform efforts. He worked against the House bill. If Democrats take the White House or the Senate, the environment could be more favorable to police reform.   

Judicial appointments

One of the most far-reaching legacies of the past four years—and one of the least discussed—will be the appointment of an increasingly conservative judiciary around the country. The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed a staggering 200 judges appointed by Trump. By comparison, Obama appointed 334 in eight years.

Judicial appointments have been a priority for Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democratic wins in the White House and Congress (McConnell himself faces a credible election challenge) could slow that drive, or even reverse its direction, from the Supreme Court on down.

While the lower court appointments have judicial ramifications that are not always obvious, the direction of the Supreme Court is one area that is sure to galvanize the electorate. Trump’s two Supreme Court appointments, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, generated large amounts of advocacy, both for and against,  during their hearings. Their confirmations have given the court a conservative majority, but the Court has not yet ruled in a way that uniformly pleases Republicans.

The crucial Supreme Court seat to watch is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At the age of 87, she has battled cancer and is likely to be the next justice to retire, leaving the next president to nominate her successor. As a liberal hero, Ginsburg holds as much symbolic value for the left as the late Antonin Scalia did for the right.

Immigration

If Trump wins re-election, the administration will likely double down on this issue, which helped propel him to the White House. Expect the administration to limit legal immigration and prioritize American workers over foreign workers. Alternatively, Biden and Democrats in Congress are likely to take a more open policy on immigration, with fewer restrictions on foreign visas. 

Under Trump, a resolution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is extremely unlikely. The program allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children—known as “Dreamers”—to obtain a renewable, two-year deferral that protects them from deportation. While the U.S. Supreme Court has prevented the administration from killing the program, Congress has so far failed to pass a bill to sustain the program or otherwise help Dreamers. Democrats have vowed to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would do exactly that. 

Climate Change

Climate change and clean energy will be a major issue for the next administration, no matter who wins—and the two candidates could not approach the issue more differently. 

Trump has generally downplayed the effects of climate change, largely dismissing even reports generated by the U.S. government. Biden has sworn to address climate change through a number of major initiatives.

Biden has been out of step with some of the more libral elements of his party when it comes to climate measures in recent months. He has not completely opposed fracking and he did not fully back the Green New Deal, a Democratic proposal to address climate change. Now, as the presumptive nominee, Biden is trying to unite his party behind a set of proposals.

Biden proposed a $2 trillion initiative over four years to address climate change. Among other things, the plan would cut emissions in the electricity industry to zero by 2035; increase energy efficiency in roughly 4 million buildings and 2 million homes; and create an office at the Department of Justice for environmental and climate justice. Overall, the U.S. goal would be net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in accordance with United Nations objectives.

While pulling out of the landmark Paris Accord has been a multi-step, multi-year process started by Trump, it is sure to become final if he wins a second term. If Biden wins, the U.S. would rejoin the pact at the start of the administration.

Gun Control

With a narrowing base of support, Trump has been tweeting about the importance of protecting “2A” (Second Amendment) rights. If he is reelected, nobody should expect a second-term pivot on this issue, which has failed to make any meaningful progress in decades. It has been 25 years since Congress passed significant gun control legislation, though individual states have made changes..

Biden supports renewing an expired assault weapons ban imposed in the 1990s. He has also called for a federal gun buyback program to reduce the number of weapons on the street. But a Democratic Congress will be required to gain any traction. President Obama’s push for gun control never gained flight because he was working with a Republican Congress.

Still, stricter gun laws remain relatively popular, spurred by continued mass shootings and a vocal advocacy movement. A Gallup poll in November showed that 64 percent of Americans favor stricter laws. But there remains a massive partisan divide. While that number swells to 88 percent among Democrats, it shrinks to 36 percent among Republicans. 

As Gallup concluded, “it appears the only chance that gun laws will be stiffened in the foreseeable future is if a Democrat takes the White House in 2020 and signs legislation that a Democratic-controlled Congress passes.”

Education

Presidential candidates always offer an array of policy proposals related to education. Often, the funding and political will for these initiatives gets overtaken by more pressing demands once in office. The success of any president’s education platform will depend on the make-up of Congress. 

Trump supports expanding school vouchers and has proposed a cap on the amount of loans parents and students can take on. Taking a cue from his more progressive opponents in the Democratic primary, Biden wants to offer two years of free community college and universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-old children.

Student loan forgiveness is also likely to become an issue influenced by the election. With 45 million Americans owing roughly $1.6 trillion, it’s no small matter (a group recently gathered more than 1 million signatures on a petition supporting the initiative). While some Democrats champion complete forgiveness, the proposal Biden supports would cap it at $10,000 per person. Democrats in the House and Senate have indicated support for some form of action on student loans, but Senate Republicans have not.

Energy & Environment

Though the U.S. is now the largest oil producer in the world, the next administration is very likely going to have to address serious problems in the oil and gas sector.

Battered by a global price war and a pandemic that has reduced demand and cost the industry hundreds of thousands of jobs, companies are going bankrupt at an alarming rate. Rystad Energy, an analytics company, estimates that 250 companies could file for bankruptcy protection by the end of next year, more than in the last five years combined, according to The New York Times.

It is unclear whether government subsidies will be considered. The industry was criticized for taking government money following the 2008 recession, but several companies were granted loans this year as part of the pandemic relief legislation.

Overall, Republicans and Democrats will obviously treat energy policy very differently.     

Should Trump be reelected and the Republicans retain control of the Senate, we will likely see a continued push for expanding energy exploration on federal lands and more Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency regulations may be eliminated. 

If Biden wins, the emphasis will be on clean energy and renewables. The pandemic has led to a global decline in greenhouse gas emissions, opening a new path for environmentalists to make a case for more investment in this area. That message will likely be welcome in a Biden administration. 

Healthcare

The primary healthcare issue will be how the next administration and Congress contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which is clearly on the rise after several states relaxed restrictions in an effort to realize an economic boost. It is likely that America will be managing the coronavirus for the foreseeable future, and the two presidential candidates will bring very different approaches.

The Trump administration has downplayed the health impacts of the virus, despite the high death toll. It has called for less testing, required schools to reopen and generally made decisions that prioritize economics over public health. Trump famously declined to wear a mask in public for the first three months of the outbreak.

Biden is positioning himself as everything Trump is not, emphasizing public safety and a collective approach to managing the pandemic. While Trump formally told the United Nations that America will leave the World Health Organization, Biden tweeted his support for WHO membership. “Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health. On my first day as President, I will rejoin the @WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage,” he wrote.

Of course, there are other differences between Republicans and Democrats on healthcare. Trump is dedicated to ending Obamacare, with the Department of Justice asking the Supreme Court in June to vacate the law even as the pandemic swelled usage of the program in April and May. Trump has expressed support for coverage for Americans with preexisting conditions, but has not announced a plan for how to enact it. 

A Democratic win will shift focus to expanding Medicaid and will likely revive the debate over Medicare-for-all. That proposal—the core of the single-payer healthcare vision that sees government guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans—has become a key plank in the progressive Democratic platform. Progressives want to move the system away from relying on employer-sponsored health insurance. 

Many Republicans deride Medicare-for-all as socialism, and will push back aggressively on these types of proposals. Medicaid expansion may encounter less resistance. Some Republican-led states, such as Oklahoma, have voted to expand Medicaid. In fact, 37 states and Washington DC have adopted the Medicaid expansion, while 13 states have not.

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