Republican platform: Government is still the problem

This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

The 2016 Republican Party platform could be summed up with the words used by President Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address: "In this crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem."

As a result, unlike the Democratic platform, which I examined earlier, there are few government programs proposed in the Republican platform. Rather the emphasis is on less government programs, less regulations and less taxes.

For example, it complains that "Big government undermines federalism through more than 1,100 grants-in-aid programs that consume more than one-sixth of the federal budget for matters that should be the exclusive responsibility of the states." It calls on Congress "to reduce and ultimately eliminate this system of conditioned grants so that state and local taxpayers can decide for themselves what is best for their own communities."

It rejects the concept of countercyclical budgeting and asserts that "The Republican path to fiscal sanity and economic expansion begins with a constitutional requirement for a federal balanced budget." It also wants to government to study the possibility of returning to the gold standard.

The platform trusts the private sector, not the government. "Government cannot create prosperity, though government can limit or destroy it. Prosperity is the product of self-discipline, enterprise, saving and in­vestment by individuals," explains the platform.

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Since "private investment is a key driver of economic growth and job creation," lower taxes and fewer regulations on investment is the way out of our financial problems.

It blames the slow growth of the economy on policies of the Obama administration, especially Obamacare and the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Pro­tection Act, otherwise known as Dodd-Frank, which was enacted in response to the financial meltdown at the end of the Bush presidency.

At the same time, the platform backs Main Street rather than Wall Street by calling for "reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which prohibits commercial banks from engaging in high-risk investment." This would be a major slap down for big banks.

The platform has an unshakable faith in the market if it is free from government interference, even if it means some businesses fail. "Republicans believe that no financial institution is too big to fail," asserts the platform. "We support legislation to ensure that the problems of any financial institution can be resolved through the Bankruptcy Code."

This a repudiation of the bank bailout initiated under President Bush.

The platform recognizes the problem of crony capitalism and corporate welfare. "When government uses taxpayer funding and resources to give special advantages to private companies, it distorts the free market and erodes public trust in our political system." It argues that big government leads inevitably to crony capitalism with "special interest tax breaks, custom-designed regulations, and special exemptions for favored parties."

"We applaud the Republican Members of Congress who have taken the lead in fighting crony capitalism and urge others to rally to their cause."

While Pope Francis has also been a vocal critic of crony capitalism, Catholic social teaching has always had a positive view of the role of government and a reluctance to abandon people to the Darwinian forces of the market. Government is the way the community works together for the common good. Even popes before Francis, such as Benedict XVI, saw a role for government in the regulation of the economy and the redistribution of wealth.

At the same time, one should not see every criticism of government in the platform as contrary to Catholic social teaching. Government regulations can be stifling. Clearly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have had problems. And the platform is probably correct in describing "California's high-speed train to nowhere" as a "boondoggle." And the tax code needs reform and simplification.

But the tone of the document leads one to think that the Republicans will do these reforms with an ax, not a scalpel.

The platform also has a very jaundiced view of labor-protection laws and unions, something dear to the heart of John Paul II. The Republicans wish to "challenge the anach­ronistic labor laws that limit workers' freedom and lock them into the workplace rules of their great-grandfathers."

On the other hand, it says "today's workers need flexibility and family-friendly options to make the most of them, especially portability in pension plans and health insurance."

Nor does it support an increase in the minimum wage: "Minimum wage is an issue that should be handled at the state and local level."

The platform claims that the Republican welfare reform of 1996 got people off welfare and into jobs, but that "the current Administration has nullified any meaningful work requirement and made TANF a mockery of the name we gave it: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families."

It is not clear where these people would find jobs if their government assistance were cut off.

The Republicans believe that what is needed is the "removal of structural impediments which progressives throw in the path of poor people: Over-regulation of start-up enterprises, excessive licensing requirements, needless restrictions on formation of schools and day-care centers serving neighborhood families, and restrictions on providing public services in fields like transport and sanitation that close the opportunity door to all but a favored few."

The platform affirms the party's devotion to "the Constitution's fundamental principles: limited government, separation of powers, individual liberty, and the rule of law."

"We denounce bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, and religious intolerance," says the platform. "Therefore, we oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination." But "merit and hard work should determine advancement in our society, so we reject unfair preferences, quotas, and set-asides as forms of discrimination."

No recognition is given to the fact that some folks have an advantage in this competition because they are privileged by birth.

The platform calls for the appointment of judges like the late Antonin Scalia who will "reverse the long line of activist decisions -- including RoeObergefell, and the Obamacare cases."

In a section that the American Catholic bishops will applaud, it defends "traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman." It also condemns "Ongoing attempts to compel individuals, businesses, and institutions of faith to transgress their beliefs are part of a misguided effort to undermine religion and drive it from the public square."

The platform endorses "the First Amendment Defense Act, Republican legislation in the House and Senate which will bar government discrimination against individuals and businesses for acting on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman." Among other things, this would protect faith-based adoption services, charities, and educational institutions from losing grants or contracts because of their opposition to gay marriage.

On abortion, the platform criticizes the Democratic Party for reducing the old Clinton mantra of "safe, legal, and rare" to just "legal." It opposes the use of public funds for abortion and supports a "human life" amendment to the Constitution, although it does not specify the language of the amendment.

It also supports "legislation that requires financial responsibility for the child be equally borne by both the mother and father upon conception until the child reaches adulthood," but does not propose any government programs to help single mothers if no child support is available from the father.

The platform's opposition to abortion would be applauded by the U.S. Catholic bishops, although they would also want to see government programs helping poor families, which are not mentioned by the platform.

On the environment, the Republican platform believes that for the most part environmental regulations should be left to the states. It asserts that "year by year, the environment is improving," although it gives no credit to government regulations for this improvement.

It criticizes federal regulations of the energy industry and wants the federal government to turn over more of its land to the states. It sees no need to protect "gray wolves and other species if these species exist elsewhere in healthy numbers in another state or country."

The platform rejects the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement on climate change. It states that "The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution," which is intolerant "toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy." It demands "an immediate halt to U.S. funding for the U.N.'s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)." It asserts that "The Environmental Protection Agency has rewritten laws to advance the Democrats' climate change agenda."

The platform blames the Democrats for delaying the Farm Bill because of their efforts "to expand welfare through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)." Since the 1960s, the Farm Bill has been linked to aid to food stamps (now called SNAP) as a political deal between urban and rural members of Congress. The platform promises to break that deal and pass a farm bill separately without SNAP.

The inference is that farm subsidies are more important than food aid to the poor.

The Republicans promise to get the financing of Social Security and Medicare under control without endangering the elderly and needy who depend on them. At the same time, it condemns the Obama administration's attempt to do this by cutting payments to Medicare providers. It proposes raising the age of eligibility for future retirees and providing private sector alternatives to Medicare. It wants to see Medicaid turned into block grants to the states who can then design their own programs.

At the same time, the platform believes all of this can be done while expanding coverage for mental health care.

On immigration, the Republican platform breaks with Catholic social teaching. It opposes any form of amnesty for those here illegally. All executive orders protecting such immigrants will be rescinded by the new Republican president. "In a time of terrorism, drug cartels, human trafficking, and criminal gangs, the presence of millions of unidentified individuals in this country poses grave risks to the safety and sovereignty of the United States. Our highest priority, therefore, must be to secure our borders and all ports of entry and to enforce our immigration laws."

The platform supports building a wall that "must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic."

It also urges reform of our guest worker program. "In light of the alarming levels of unemployment and underemployment in this country, it is indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year."

The platform speaks of the importance of education and says that the country currently "spends an average of more than $12,000 per pupil per year in public schools, for a total of more than $620 billion." Of this only $57 billion comes from the federal government.

"More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance," says the platform. "After years of trial and error, we know the policies and methods that have actually made a difference in student advancement: Choice in education; building on the basics; STEM subjects and phonics; career and technical education; ending social promotions; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards."

Likewise, it is critical of the high cost of higher education whose graduates do not always find jobs. "We need new systems of learning to compete with traditional four-year schools: Technical institutions, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector. Public policy should advance their affordability, innovation, and transparency and should recognize that a four-year degree from a brick-and-mortar institution is not the only path toward a prosperous and fulfilling career."

With regards to criminal justice reform, the platform acknowledges that modifications in mandatory sentencing might be acceptable in some circumstances, but it appears more concerned with protecting those accused of white collar crimes by insisting on the need to prove criminal intent.

There is a new tone to the section on the abuse of drugs. "Heroin and opioid abuse touches our communities, our homes, and our families in ways that have grave effects on Americans in every community," says the platform. There is less talk about long sentences for drug users now that this is a white middle-class problem.

The major exception to the platform's desire for small government is the military.

"The Republican Party is committed to rebuilding the U.S. military into the strongest on earth, with vast superiority over any other nation or group of nations in the world." It wants new airplanes for the Air Force, more troops for the Army and Marines, and rapid deployment of a ballistic missile defense system.

"We need a Reagan-era force that can fight and win two-and one-half wars ranging from counterterrorism to deterring major power aggressors." It also promises increased funding for military "pay, healthcare, housing, education, and overall support."

The platform rejects the nuclear deal with Iran and promises to continue our partnership with Iraq "as long as ISIS and others like it survive in the region." And despite Trump's questioning of NATO, the platform calls the alliance's continued effectiveness "vital."

In short, the platform has a strong language against abortion and protecting religious individuals and organizations who are charged with discriminating against gays. These sections will certainly please U.S. bishops who oppose abortion and feel their religious liberty is under attack.

On the other hand, the platforms' unwavering faith in the marketplace as the solution to the world's problems does not resonate with Catholic social teaching which also sees a strong role for government regulations and programs helping those who cannot prosper in the free market. Nor does the platform see protecting the environment with the same urgency as does Laudato Si'.

The Republican platform does raise serious questions about the effectiveness of government programs, including education, that need to be examined and debated. Sadly, the partisan atmosphere of the country makes it difficult to focus on improving programs. Rather each side throws rhetorical bombs at the other.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]

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