Midterm Elections Preview: Congress

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Andrew Pulrang

(July 18, 2018) As I write this, it is 112 days until the Midterm Election, November 6, 2018. Elections will be held for every level of office except for President, but by far the most discussed are the races for the Senate and House of Representatives.

All 435 House seats are up for election and ⅓ of the Senate. Republicans hold majorities in both houses. Democrats would need to gain at least 43 seats overall to reach a majority in the House, and 5 more seats than they currently have to take control of the Senate. In New York, all 27 House members are up for re-election, while Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand https://secure.kirstengillibrand.com/ is running for re-election against Republican Chele Farley https://www.chelefarleyforsenate.com/. Sen. Chuck Schumer isn’t up for reelection this year.

Republicans will try hard this year to hold onto their majorities in the face of generally poor public opinion polls and against the historical trend of majority party losses in nearly all Midterm Elections. This election can be seen as the first opportunity for voters nationwide to register their approval or disapproval of the Trump Administration. But the election is more than a popularity contest or a symbolic protest. For disabled people, in particular, the outcomes will matter for real life issues that affect us directly.

How does Congress affect disabled people’s lives?

All Federal laws have to pass both the Senate and the House of Representatives. So Congress is the key to some of the most critical laws and programs affecting disabled people in the United States, including:

  • Civil rights laws like the ADA
  • Income support like Social Security Disability, SSI, and SNAP (Food Stamps)
  • Medicaid, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)
  • Long-term care, including home care and developmental disability services
  • Federal housing assistance
  • Special Education in all public schools, both funding, and guiding regulations
  • Labor laws and regulations, including the subminimum wage

The Senate by itself has some other unique powers:

  • The Senate confirms or rejects federal court nominees, including for the Supreme Court, which has at various times has expanded or limited the scope of key laws and programs, like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Affordable Care Act.
  • The Senate votes on nominees to the Cabinet and major agencies, like the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Housing & Urban Development. These department heads can have an enormous effect on the work of government agencies, even without changes in the law.
  • The Senate also ratifies or rejects U.S. participation in international treaties, like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Why is it important which party has the majority in the House or Senate?

When you vote for a House or Senate candidate, you are not just voting for someone to represent your region or state. You are also helping decide which party controls every important piece of legislation in Congress. Plus, your vote for Senate also shapes court rulings for decades to come, through the Senate’s role in confirming Supreme Court nominees, like President Trump’s newest nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

What do candidates for Congress need to hear from disabled voters?

Here are three questions you can ask any candidate for House or Senate:

  1. “What are your views on Social Security Disability, Medicaid, and Medicare?” Do they want to protect them, keep them well funded, and update their rules to foster more independence for disabled people? Or, do they mainly talk of cutting them or making it even harder to qualify, in order to “save” them?
  2. “Do you support the Disability Integration Act?” Be prepared to explain the bill if they don’t recognize the name, and ask for specific reasons if they say no or try to avoid a straight answer. If you use home care at all to maintain your own independence, this is where your personal experiences can be truly influential.
  3. “Would you vote to end subminimum wage?” Again, explain “subminimum wage” if they don’t know what it means. Try to find out how their views are influenced by sheltered workshops in their district, or by contact with families of disabled people who may support sheltered workshops and subminimum wage.

If you have time, you can also bring up at least three more equally critical topics:

  1. HR 620, the bill that would require 90 days notice to business owners before a disabled person could sue for ADA violations. Is it a sensible reform of the ADA, or an unnecessary and insulting curb on the civil rights of people with disabilities?
  2. Full funding for Special Education. Local special ed services have never received the full federal support they were supposed to get when the original laws were passed decades ago.
  3. Integrated community living. There are still people with a positive view of segregated, centralized, regulated “communities” and other types of institutions for disabled people … people want to see the trend away from institutions reversed. Elected officials need to hear from actual disabled people how they really feel about institutions.

If your dialog with a candidate is going well, you could also ask about:

  1. The effect of curbing opioids on people with severe chronic pain.
  2. Disability as a factor in incidents of police violence.
  3. What banning plastic straws can mean for some disabled people.

Pick issues you feel most strongly about, or where you have personal experience. You can also do some reading on your own, and pass these links along to the Congressional candidates in your area:

Summer 2018 NCIL Legislative & Advocacy Priorities Booklet http://www.advocacymonitor.com/summer-2018-ncil-legislative-advocacy-priorities-booklet-now-available/

AAPD / #RevUp Issues Guide https://www.aapd.com/advocacy/voting/rev-up-issues-guide/

#CripTheVote Disability Issues Surveys (2016 & 2018) http://cripthevote.blogspot.com/p/2016-survey.html