Washington Weekly: Supreme Court and Abortion

U.S. Office of Public Policy, 6 May 2022

8 min read

This Week:

The Senate confirmed various Biden administration nominees. The House was out of session.

Next Week:

The Senate will continue to vote on Biden administration nominees. The House will vote on bills to expand Transportation Security Administration (TSA) worker rights, to expand eligibility of federal benefits for firefighters who develop certain health conditions and to reauthorize the Community Services Block Grant program to help local organizations reduce poverty in their communities.

The Lead

Supreme Court and Abortion.

The leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion to overturn the landmark 1972 Roe v Wade decision generated loud reactions in Washington and across the country, though it remains to be seen what impact the expected decision will have on this year’s mid-term elections. Activists on both sides of the issue were featured prominently on cable shows and in national protests, but their positions and political allegiances are largely known quantities. The bigger question is how swing voters (reliable voters not strongly committed to either party) will react. Their dissatisfaction with President Biden over the past year has given Republicans momentum in their efforts to regain control of the House and Senate. Whether this decision slows that momentum will depend not only on how these voters view the Supreme Court’s expected decision, but also how they weigh its importance relative to other priority issues like inflation, Ukraine, border security and crime. While Democrats were finally given an issue with which to go on the offensive, it’s not clear yet whether it will work to their political advantage in the fall.

Congress and Abortion.

In response, House and Senate Democratic leaders made preparations to bring bills to the floor that would codify a right to abortion at the national level. Republicans will offer amendments to limit that to the first six weeks in a pregnancy. Neither of these measures will muster the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass. Therefore, if the Court does in fact overturn Roe v Wade, it will be left to each state to determine its own policy with respect to abortion. Some supporters of abortion rights would like Democrats to eliminate the filibuster as a means of passing an abortion rights bill, but not all Democratic Senators are in favor of this tactic. The same can be said of another proposal to increase the size of the Supreme Court (in order to allow President Biden to appoint more justices and therefore change the balance in the court). As usual in Washington, this will all result in a fever pitch of noise but no passed legislation.

Russia, Ukraine and the US.

On a more bipartisan basis, Congress soon should pass President Biden’s request to provide $33 billion in further military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Democratic leaders will try to attach additional Covid funding to this measure, but that effort likely will be stymied by Republicans who aren’t convinced of the need for additional Covid funds at this time. With Ukraine’s urgent and ongoing need for support, this bill is likely to be followed by another aid bill later in the year. The bill could include a provision that would use some of the money seized by the US from Russian oligarchs for aid to Ukraine. This package will bring the current price tag for US support for Ukraine to $46 billion.

Other Issues

Inflation Shame.

On the same day that the Federal Reserve moved to increase interest rates, some Senators used a committee hearing to badger Visa and Mastercard for increasing the interchange fees they charge retailers in card transactions. According to one study cited at the hearing, retailers paid $84.2 billion in these “swipe fees” to the card companies in 2020. This hearing followed other hearings over the last month that targeted the oil and gas and meat packing industries for higher prices. In these hearings, Democrats have argued that these industries face little competitive pressures and have contributed to rising inflation by purposely raising prices to meet profit targets. Democrats have deployed these arguments in part as a way to deflect Republican charges that Democratic policies (such as significant new spending) have been primary causes for higher inflation. Additional businesses (including in the food industry) will soon be the subject of similar hearings. With voters identifying higher inflation as their primary concern in many recent public polls, congressional Democrats hope that shaming industries and companies that increase prices will resonate with voters and perhaps prompt these entities to reassess any future plans for further price increases.

529 Savings to Retirement?

Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Susan Collins (R-ME) recently introduced a bill that would permit unused funds in a 529 college savings plan to be rolled over into a Roth Individual Retirement Account. This bipartisan bill also would provide a tax credit to low and middle income Americans who make contributions into a 529 savings plan. It often takes years for a new proposal like this to garner enough support to move forward. However, there is an opportunity for it to be added to a broader retirement policy bill (called SECURE 2.0) that has passed the House and is beginning to get traction in the Senate. The Senate Finance Committee will consider this package this summer, and it could pass the full Senate later in the year. If these senators push hard enough for their bill and ensure it has adequate guardrails to prevent potential abuse, it could become law later this year as part of this larger retirement package.

Consumer Finance Focus.

The aforementioned hearing on interchange fees wasn’t the only one on a consumer finance issue this week. At another Senate panel, lawmakers debated legislation to ban overdraft fees, which are fees banks charge when an individual spends more than the amount in his/her bank account. While some banks have eliminated these fees, the broader industry has defended overdraft protections as a source of liquidity for consumers. Controversial proposals like a ban on overdraft fees (or an expansion of the existing limit on certain interchange fees or a federal cap on interest rates) have little chance of passing, though some issues will be pursued in the regulatory sphere by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB is currently scrutinizing fees in consumer products (like overdraft and various credit card fees) and could issue regulatory proposals, though its statutory powers generally pertain to appropriate disclosure rather than caps or prohibitions.

Love for Truck Drivers.

A bipartisan group of House members recently introduced a bill to provide truck drivers with overtime pay, something they have long sought. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay workers time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours worked, includes a motor carrier overtime exemption for truck drivers. This exemption was originally intended to prevent truck drivers from working too many hours (and falling asleep behind the wheel), but many argue that the exemption is now outdated and prevents truck drivers from receiving fair compensation since most work more than 40 hours in a week. This bill would repeal that exemption, thereby allowing truck drivers to be compensated for overtime hours instead of the prevailing pay-per-mile model that exists today. Truck drivers have sought the elimination of this exemption for years. The trucking industry faces significantly high turnover rates with some firms having driver turnover rates of 200-300% per year. The current shortage of truck drivers (about 80,000) is also a significant contributor to supply chain challenges in the US. While there is bipartisan support for this bill, it faces challenges in passing both the House and Senate in an abbreviated election year.

The Final Word

The Return of @RealDonaldTrump?

With the news emerging last week that Twitter’s board would accept Elon Musk’s offer to purchase the company, one of the first questions to emerge in the political world was whether a Musk-led Twitter would allow former president Donald Trump back on its platform. There is good reason to believe that Trump’s account will be reinstated even though he has stated he is not interested in returning to Twitter. While Trump has remained visible since being banned from Twitter early last year, his removal has diminished his ability to directly connect with many supporters. His absence from Twitter has actually been welcome news for many Republicans. Instead of being asked constantly to comment on Trump’s tweets, they have been able to focus on their own messaging. Privately, many Democratic insiders are hoping that the former president will regain access to Twitter given their belief that his tendency to tweet controversial statements may help Democrats in the mid-term elections.