The new front in the right’s war on abortion

Originally published in Vox on January 9, 2023.
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The Biden administration helped expand access to medication abortion last week, with the US Food and Drug Administration finalizing a rule to make the pills more readily available in pharmacies. But this effort to help patients get pills to end a pregnancy could be dwarfed by a major push to restrict access to the medication from anti-abortion leaders and their Republican allies.

As lawmakers head back to state legislatures this month, many for the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Republicans face new pressure to restrict access to the combination of abortion-inducing drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol, used typically within the first 10 to 12 weeks of a pregnancy. Medication abortion has become the most common method for ending pregnancies in the United States, partly due to its safety record, its lower cost, diminished access to in-person care, and greater opportunities for privacy.

Restricting access to the pills is not a new goal for the anti-abortion movement; the Guttmacher Institute tracked 118 medication abortion restrictions introduced last year across 22 states, and many conservative states already have laws on the books for dispensing the drugs that go beyond what the FDA requires and what leading health organizations recommend.

But efforts to crack down on abortion pills have taken on new urgency since the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. More women are finding ways to bypass abortion bans through organizations like Aid Access in Europe, pill suppliers from Mexico, and methods like mail forwarding from states where abortion is legal. While a study from the Society of Family Planning estimated that legal abortions nationwide declined by more than 10,000 in the two months following the Supreme Court’s decision, some or many of those abortions may have been replaced by pills women privately obtained and researchers couldn’t count.

“Everyone who is trafficking these pills should be in jail for trafficking,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told the Washington Post in December. “It hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.”

Some of the restrictions on medication abortion leaders are considering extend well beyond those pursued by lawmakers in previous years, when their focus was generally on banning telemedicine and adding more requirements for dispensing pills in person, like mandatory ultrasounds, waiting periods, and visits with doctors.

Anti-abortion activists are exploring new strategies, such as laws to ban websites like Aid Access and Plan C and laws to make health care providers newly liable for disposing of aborted fetal tissue. In a federal lawsuit filed in November, one religious conservative group has challenged the FDA’s approval of mifepristone writ large, alleging the agency abused its authority 23 years ago in authorizing the drug at all.

Some lawmakers are looking to test the limits of their extraterritorial powers, exploring how and whether they could punish a resident for getting an out-of-state abortion, or retaliate against providers in other states who facilitate them.

“Anti-abortion advocates are throwing the kitchen sink in an attempt to see what might work,” said Jenny Ma, a senior attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “That’s the same playbook the anti-abortion movement had before Dobbs … but they’ve become emboldened.”

Sue Liebel, the director of state affairs with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told Vox she expects states to pursue “creative” strategies for enforcement, including through state health departments, boards of pharmacy, and the police. “Everyone’s trying something different,” she said. “If there’s one thing I can anticipate, in this particular year of legislative sessions, when we’re not even quite 200 days from Dobbs, I think the keyword this year is ‘variety.’ While things are a little early right now, I know it’s going to explode very soon.”

Leaders are looking at new ways to enforce anti-abortion laws

Some states have banned abortion entirely — including abortion pills — while others have banned telemedicine abortion, meaning individuals can only obtain the drugs in person from a doctor. But there are workarounds. If you live in a state like Texas, you can still order pills from Aid Access, which ships internationally to restrictive states. Or you could travel to a less restrictive state, connect with a provider there, and then pick up the pills from a discreet location. Others rely on friends, acquaintances, and activist networks in abortion-friendly areas to help them get the medication.

To crack down on these options, anti-abortion leaders are exploring new ways to ramp up enforcement of existing rules and restrictions. With poorly regulated data privacy laws, aggressive prosecutors could amass a lot of evidence if they suspect a person obtained an illegal abortion, or an abortion that would not be legal in their home state.

One proposal, which is expected to be introduced this week in Texas, would expand the ability of private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against anyone thought to have terminated a pregnancy illegally with abortion pills. This would build on a six-week abortion ban that took effect in Texas in 2021, which included the novel citizen enforcement mechanism.

John Seago, president of Texas Right to Life, told Vox they’re looking to “utilize those civil liability tools” for abortion before six weeks, and his group is working to identify examples of people who might be distributing abortion pills illegally for local prosecutors to then charge.

Seago said Texas lawmakers are also going to explore ways to hold groups with ties to abortion pill distributors “financially and criminally accountable.” Though some medication abortion providers are outside Texas and outside the United States, Seago said elected officials are looking to target entities with connections to the providers that might have subsidiaries in Texas. “If there is still an affiliation or cooperation of other entities with that pharmacy or physician dispensing the pills, then legislators can look at our law and spread out the accountability,” he said.

In October, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma asked their state’s attorney general for a formal opinion clarifying whether self-managed abortions constitute murder under their strict abortion ban. A spokesperson for Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor told Vox that request is still “being evaluated.”

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America has been speaking with conservative governors regarding ways to restrict shipments of abortion medication. Liebel, the state affairs director, acknowledged that internet sales makes enforcement of existing rules difficult.

“But we are also aware that states have requirements for parental consent that may or may not be followed by these [online] providers,” she said, adding that they’re working to craft legislation to address this.

To crack down on medication abortion, experts anticipate more politicians will follow in the wake of Missouri lawmakers, who in 2021 and 2022 began testing the limits of restricting abortion outside their borders. Advocates expect to see more bills targeting out-of-state doctors who prescribe pills to their residents, and bills targeting those who may “aid and abet” a pregnant person in traveling out of state.

“Anti-abortion states will not be satisfied with just banning abortion in their states and are looking to flex their extraterritorial muscles,” said Lorie Chaiten, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

To restrict medication abortion, activists are leaning into misleading and false arguments about women’s health and safety

Medication abortion in the US has long been subject to more rules and restrictions than other drugs with higher risks of death or adverse complications.

Over the objections of groups like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the FDA has long had mifepristone on its Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) list, a designation used when the government determines that increased restrictions are necessary for a drug’s benefit to outweigh its risks. As a result, the FDA could require that only certified medical professionals in hospitals, medical offices, or clinics administer the pills, meaning someone couldn’t just fill a prescription at their local pharmacy.

In 2017, the ACLU sued the FDA, arguing its mifepristone restrictions were not medically justified.

In part due to pressure from the ACLU’s still-pending lawsuit, during the pandemic the FDA temporarily lifted its requirement that mifepristone be dispensed in person at a clinic or a hospital. In December 2021, the FDA announced it would permanently lift the in-person dispensal requirement, and last week the FDA officially clarified that certified pharmacies can dispense mifepristone.

While that is still more restrictive than what leading health groups recommend, advocates praised these changes as measures in the right direction toward expanding abortion access.

But for many leaders in the anti-abortion movement, these actions were cast as proof that lawmakers are “lowering medical standards” and putting women at risk. In an op-ed published last year, Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, laid out the case that loosening the REMS restrictions is “anti-woman and anti-science.”

Hawkins emphasized that “more than 20” women have died of complications from abortion medication since 2000. (This is out of the nearly 5 million women in the US who have taken the drugs in that period. The FDA reports a total of 4,207 “adverse events” in that time, or a rate of 0.09 percent, less than one-tenth of 1 percent; overall, legal abortion by any method was found to be 14 times less deadly than childbirth.)

Hawkins also argued that medication abortion “causes four times the complications as surgical abortion” and comes with a “risk of death that is ten times higher,” citing research from 2009 and 2006. Both studies are “outdated and rely on outdated medication abortion protocols,” Ushma Upadhyay, a professor with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California San Francisco, told Vox. The 2009 study in particular, Upadhyay added, “is simply not credible or rigorous.”

Anti-abortion leaders also claim that easing up on requirements for in-person doctor visits endangers women at risk of ectopic pregnancies, and threatens the fertility of women with Rh-negative blood type. (Approximately 1 to 2 percent of all pregnancies in the US are ectopic, and 15 percent of the population has Rh-negative blood type.) In a new citizen petition Students for Life filed last month, the activists called on the FDA to return to its previous REMS standard, partly for these reasons.

“We have a long track record of working to restore the health and safety standards that the Biden Administration has stripped from Chemical Abortion Pills,” Kristi Hamrick, a spokesperson for Students for Life, told Vox in an email. “Chemical Abortion Pills lead to injury, infertility, and even death as well as exposing women to abusers who have used the drugs without women’s knowledge or consent.”

Liebel of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America told Vox they are encouraging state lawmakers to pass “additional health and safety standards” around the distribution of medication abortion pills, citing the loosening of the REMS rules. In addition to requiring in-person screenings, Liebel said they’re pushing for more emergency room reporting requirements, to ensure that any complications from the drugs are not miscoded as miscarriages.

“We think there’s a real public health threat there,” she said. “A lot of state laws on abortion-inducing drugs are pretty old, pretty stale, so [lawmakers] are playing a little bit of catch-up.”

Health experts say the medical concerns raised by anti-abortion activists are not backed by evidence. Unknowingly treating a patient who has an ectopic pregnancy with mifepristone and misoprostol will not harm the patient, said Upadhyay, and “there is absolutely no evidence” that Rh in the context of abortion protects against future fertility.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists maintains that medication to manage Rh-negative pregnancies should not be a barrier to the provision of medication abortion.

When it comes to safely ending pregnancies, medication abortion is over 95 percent successful, according to Guttmacher, with less than 0.4 percent of patients requiring hospitalization. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has also affirmed medication abortion as a safe method to terminate pregnancy, and concluded that there is no medical need for the drugs to be administered in the physical presence of a health care provider.

Earlier this week, Patrizia Cavazzoni, the director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, sent a response to Students for Life’s December petition, denying its request. She noted the anti-abortion activists had provided no “new data or evidence beyond what was provided” in a similar 2019 petition the FDA also denied.

Kirsten Moore, the director of the Expanding Medication Abortion Access project, says she’s not surprised anti-abortion activists are trying to scare the public about mifepristone, especially since most people are still not very familiar with medication abortion, let alone how reproductive systems work.

“I want policy that is grounded in evidence and data, but I don’t believe fighting it out at that level with antis, saying my fact is better than your fact, will really matter in the court of public opinion,” she told Vox. “What I know for sure is that when we just stick to the simple fact that this is an FDA-approved drug that has been in use for more than 20 years, with a complication rate of less than 0.5 percent and is a safe, non-invasive option for early abortion, people like that idea and feel comfortable with it.”

Anti-abortion activists are exploring new emboldened challenges

While Students for Life’s December FDA petition was recently rejected, another citizen petition the group filed in November is still pending — and this one makes a more novel demand.

As first reported by Politico, the group has asked the FDA to require any doctor who prescribes abortion pills to bag the fetal tissue as medical waste, rather than allow the remains to be flushed down the toilet. (There is no direct evidence that abortion pills contaminate water supply, and experts have dismissed the notion that flushing these drugs poses a legitimate environmental threat.) Students for Life is also working with Republican lawmakers to push bills, in state legislatures and in Congress, that would promote this new medical waste disposal requirement.

“They are shamelessly co-opting the environmental movement’s messaging for their own agenda,” said Ma, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who raised concern about the chilling effect it may have on providers.

Similarly, in November, Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious conservative group known for defending a baker’s right to refuse to make a wedding cake for an LGBTQ couple, filed a lawsuit before a Trump-appointed judge in Texas arguing that the FDA abused its authority when it approved mifepristone 22 years ago. The plaintiffs demand the FDA withdraw its approval for mifepristone entirely.

The judge overseeing the case, Matthew Kacsmaryk, “has shown an extraordinary willingness to interpret the law creatively to benefit right-wing causes,” as Vox has previously reported. Last month, Kacsmaryk handed down a decision claiming that Title X, a federal program that funds voluntary family planning services including birth control, “violates the constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children.”

Lorie Chaiten, with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told Vox that with such politicized courts, the public can’t count on the case to disappear. “The lawsuit is completely and utterly baseless, and has so many procedural defects and in a normal world it goes away quickly,” she said. “But unfortunately, we may not be in a normal world.”

The stakes of 2024

Activists’ goal has never been to just allow abortions to continue in Democratic-controlled areas. Rather, anti-abortion leaders are organizing to make abortion illegal and inaccessible nationwide.

To do that will require winning back the White House in 2024, especially as the Biden administration has shown willingness to use executive power to defend reproductive freedom, via agencies like the FDA, the Justice Departmentthe Postal Service, and Health and Human Services.

One unsettled question looming for anti-abortion activists is whether states have the legal authority to pass rules that exceed what the FDA requires, or even outright ban drugs that the FDA has approved.

Through the passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1938, Congress empowered the FDA as the sole agency to approve drugs in the US. It’s responsible for reviewing a drug’s safety, weighing its risks and benefits, and regulating appropriate conditions for safe and effective use. The question is whether federal regulation of drugs would take precedence, or preempt, any state restrictions.

For now, legal scholars say it’s unclear how these questions will play out in court. Courts often grant deference to the FDA, though there are relatively few examples involving drugs. The main precedent is a 2014 case where a federal judge struck down a Massachusetts effort to restrict the opioid Zohydro, since the FDA had approved the painkiller.

As lawyers wrestle with these questions, anti-abortion advocates recognize they can bypass some of the confusion simply by gaining control over the federal government. As a result, they’re pressing Republican lawmakers who express presidential ambitions with questions about how they’d intend to crack down on medication abortion. An anti-abortion president could do things like pressure the FDA and other federal agencies to restrict access to abortion, or simply refuse to engage state preemption challenges.

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Inside the fight for an end-of-year deal on the child tax credit

Originally published in Vox on December 5, 2022.
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In 2021, an expansion of the child tax credit delivered hundreds of dollars monthly to some 35 million parents across the United States, helping them afford gas, food, and school expenses, and lifting almost 3 million children out of poverty. But last December, Democrats narrowly failed to approve an extension of the expanded credit, and it expired.

Now, with only a few weeks remaining before a new Congress takes office, advocates for the child tax credit are trying again to get an expansion included in any end-of-year tax package.

It’s a tall order, especially because Democrats would need at least 10 Senate Republicans to agree to pass any broad deal; last year, even a simple Democratic majority proved out of reach. But Democrats believe the political dynamics have since changed in their favor, and so have their policy demands, making a compromise potentially easier for Republican moderates to stomach.

The sticking point since the expanded credit expired has been Republicans and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s resistance to the idea that a more generous child tax credit should go to families where no parents are working. 2021 marked the only time in its quarter-century history that the CTC had no parental work requirement, and it was that feature, experts agree, that drove the policy’s substantial reduction in child poverty: a stunning 46 percent drop in one year, according to US Census data. Until the Inflation Reduction Act passed in August, Democrats and their allies were unwilling to entertain any child tax credit expansion that maintained a connection to work.

Now, though, Democrats are signaling they’d embrace a more modest expansion — ideally one that keeps the credit fully available for all families, but at least makes it easier for parents with little to no earnings to access, even if at a reduced rate. Whether lawmakers can increase the amount of funding available for parents of infants and toddlers, as opposed to all kids under 18, is another option on the table.

The biggest negotiating card Democrats have right now is certain expiring business tax breaks. Since 1974, companies have been allowed to deduct research and development (R&D) spending the same year they make the investments, but as a budget gimmick included in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, businesses, as of 2022, now must expense those costs over five or 15 years instead. Restoring the right to annually deduct R&D spending is a top legislative priority of the business community.

Advocates are hoping to pair any restoration of R&D tax breaks with an extension of the child tax credit. In November, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who chairs the Senate finance committee, declared his intent to push for both together while Democrats still control both chambers of Congress.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, chair of the Senate banking committee, has stated that expanding the CTC is his top priority. “I’ll put it this way, no more tax breaks for big corporations and the wealthy unless the child tax credit’s with it. I’ll lay down in front of a bulldozer on that one,” he said in September.

Additional aid for Ukraine, public health, and disaster relief are the Biden administration’s top priorities for any end-of-year deal, but in late November, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said that if corporate tax breaks are included in a final deal, tax cuts “for working families” should be as well.

The negotiations ultimately may turn on just how much corporate lobbying pressure Republican lawmakers face. Prior to the midterms, Republicans anticipated much bigger electoral gains, making compromise with Democrats ahead of the new Congress seem less urgent. But now, with Democrats set to retain Senate control and Republican House margins tighter than expected, the expectation that Republicans would even be able to reach a deal on the business tax breaks next year if they wanted to looks dicey.

This reality, in fact, partly explains why Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell announced last week that he’d like to negotiate an omnibus tax package in December, rather than a temporary spending deal that prevents a government shutdown but kicks the can on serious legislative decisions. Pushing the tax negotiations to 2023 would mean incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, rather than current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would be tasked with getting an acceptable deal through his chamber. “Nobody trusts McCarthy to pass anything (not even McCarthy),” quipped Politico in late November.

Though some advocates are still publicly calling for the expanded CTC of 2021, most acknowledge they’d accept more modest improvements

The 2021 expansion of the child tax credit, passed as part of President Joe Biden’s pandemic relief program, sent thousands of dollars to parents across the US. It made non-working and poor families fully eligible for the credit’s full value and increased the value of the subsidy itself — up to $3,600 per child.

Democrats had been optimistic that if they could just seed the generous program through the American Rescue Plan, then they would amass the kind of political support that makes a popular subsidy hard to repeal. But they failed, and the CTC is resultantly back to its pre-Covid form, with a maximum of $2,000 per child for working families only — and will remain there unless lawmakers change it.

At the heart of ongoing debates over the CTC are unsettled questions about what the policy is for. Is it to reduce childhood poverty? Is it to incentivize parents to work? Is it to help all kids?

Some Democratic lawmakers and CTC activists have been publicly calling for a reinstatement of the 2021 child tax credit, pointing to the research showing it helped families, reduced child poverty, and did not deter parents from working.

In late October, dozens of centrist Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to House leadership calling for an extension of the CTC passed under the American Rescue Plan. Theirs was followed by a similar letter, making the same ask, signed by dozens of progressive Democratic lawmakers. Another letter in November signed by over 550 hunger groups likewise called on congressional leadership to reinstate the child tax credit from 2021.

Adam Ruben, the director of Economic Security Project Action, a group organizing for the CTC, told me that advocates both in Congress and outside Capitol Hill are “crystal clear and aligned” in calling for the child tax credit that passed the House as part of their Build Back Better package, which mirrored the American Rescue Plan version. “That’s the version that’s most effective at reducing poverty, most effective at helping families with the high cost of gas and groceries,” he said.

Yet privately, most child tax credit champions admit they’d accept something less generous than the American Rescue Plan version, and in lobbying meetings they aren’t pressing lawmakers to hold the line, as they did during the reconciliation process. Even some lawmakers and advocates are saying this now publicly.

One option to expand the credit is to focus on the 19 million children under age 17 who currently receive less than the full $2,000, either because their parents earn too little to qualify or because they aren’t working at all. (These children are disproportionately Black, Latino, American Indian, or Alaska Native.)

Expanding the credit for those 19 million children — or, as policymakers say, making the credit “fully refundable” — would cost about $12 billion per year. But it’s not really the cost, advocates acknowledge, that’s the barrier to doing that. It’s that Manchin and Republicans believe it’s important for the credit to maintain some connection to working parents.

As a compromise, Democratic aides say they’re hoping they could make the credit at least fully refundable for parents of young children, or lower the amount parents need to earn to qualify for the credit’s full value.

“I have always believed that in the end this would be bipartisan, that it wouldn’t be just the way I had designed it, that the Republicans would make some changes to it,” Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet said recently on a Politico podcast.

Elyssa Schmier, a lobbyist with MomsRising, told me that while their long-term goal is to see a permanent extension of the child tax credit passed under the American Rescue Plan, what they’re hoping to see in a lame-duck deal “is first and foremost the inclusion of the child tax credit” and in a form that helps it reach as many families in need as possible. Schmier said their focus is not on increasing the value of the credit right now, but expanding it for low-income families currently barred by work requirements.

Rev. Jim Wallis, another child tax credit advocate who leads the Georgetown University Center on Faith and Justice, said he’s not expecting lawmakers to approve a permanent end to all work requirements in December, and said advocates are pushing for some kind of “expansion” targeted specifically to the poorest and most vulnerable families.

Most liberal activists right now agree with Schmier and Wallis that focusing on the credit’s anti-poverty potential is the most important piece. Other coalition letters have been careful to exclude mention of the 2021 child tax credit, so as to not imply they’re demanding the same policy they were calling for earlier this year. One congressional letter sent by five national civil rights organizations simply called to “expand the CTC,” as did another sent by a coalition of Christian churches and ministries.

The money elephant in the room

One reason many Democrats are trying to minimize discussion of the 2021 expanded child tax credit now is because it — and the version Democrats passed in their subsequent House Build Back Better package — is very expensive, with a price tag exceeding more than $100 billion per year.

“I love the CTC, but I think advocates have done a terrible job of acting like it costs peanuts,” said one Democratic aide working on the negotiations. “It gets you nowhere to pretend we can do this massive transformational thing for nothing. Like expectations here have just been so out of whack because none of the advocates would admit this massive expansion of child benefits costs a lot of money.”

Rather than focus on comparing dollar amounts between the child tax credit and the business tax breaks, CTC advocates have stressed lawmakers should focus instead on parity of time for benefits. In other words, if Congress extends R&D tax breaks for another two years, then they should extend the child tax credit in some form for two years, too. A spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce declined to comment.

For now, Democratic aides say they’re waiting to hear more details from Senate leadership over how much money is on the table to work with at all. McConnell has previously insisted that any end-of-year tax deal must prioritize defense spending over domestic policies, given that Democrats have already passed major domestic policy bills this year, though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he intends to fight this.

One crucial factor, according to Senate aides, will be if Republicans feel like they’re getting a fair trade — something that can be measured in terms of dollar amount, length of time, or even, frankly, just “vibes.” When House lawmakers first sent their letters in late October and early November calling for a reinstatement of the 2021 expanded CTC in exchange for business tax breaks, some Republican staffers felt Democrats were not making a serious offer, given that many Democrats also want the R&D credits extended. In other words, since Democrats weren’t coming out of the gate with any proposed cuts to their own priorities, it didn’t seem like a great deal to Republicans, or even a realistic threat.

Democratic aides I spoke with said the threat to vote against R&D tax breaks if not paired with the child tax credit is no bluff, and pointed to the fact that Democrats have stood resolved against approving the business tax breaks to this point despite intense lobbying pressure. “If the number of Democrats willing to support the Young-Hassan bill were compelling then this would have been passed by now,” one aide said, referring to a bill Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) have tried to include in multiple legislative vehicles this past year.

Sam Hammond, the director of social policy at the Niskanen Center, a centrist think tank, thinks the chances of reaching a deal on the child tax credit this month are relatively slim, though he believes the results of the midterms increased its odds. “Even though Democrats lost the House, just having control of the Senate floor is, like, nine-tenths of the battle over what can be put on the floor and up for a vote,” he said. “I think if Republicans had swept, there wouldn’t be a tax package being discussed at all.”

Where are Republicans on this?

Conservatives opposed to expanding the child tax credit are sensing that a legislative deal might not be far-fetched, and have started to ramp up their opposition.

The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed and an editorial against the CTC in late November, perhaps the clearest indication they recognize it’s time to fight. “The tax credit is a parable about good intentions, unintended consequences, and the insatiable entitlement state,” the Journal argued, citing new studies that estimate a permanent extension of the American Rescue Plan child tax credit would reduce economic output by 0.2 percent over a decade, and lead to 1.5 million people leaving the workforce.

In June, Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (UT), Richard Burr (NC), and Steve Daines (MT) introduced a new bill — the Family Security Act 2.0 — to distribute monthly cash payments to parents. The proposal is a modified version of a child allowance policy Romney introduced in 2021, though his new bill includes a requirement that families earn at least $10,000 to receive its full benefit.

The Republican proposal would mark a big expansion from the current child tax credit. It would increase the maximum value from $2,000 to $4,200 for each child under age 6 and $3,000 for each child ages 6 through 17, paid out in monthly installments.

Romney’s office declined to comment for this story, but the Utah senator told Semafor “it’s probably not going to be until next year that we consider new legislation” on the CTC.

Most other Republicans, though, are being more tight-lipped, and Ruben, of the Economic Security Project, says his conversations with Republicans suggest they’re keeping their negotiating options open for now.

“We’re talking to Republican offices that say they want to do more for families than current law provides, and when we say, ‘What’s your bottom line in terms of what you can or can’t accept?’ they say, ‘Well, I don’t know, it’s a deal,’” Ruben said. “They don’t say, ‘It has to absolutely do this,’ or has to be written in a certain way. It’s all more fluid in Congress right now than that.”

Democrats eye new legislation to rein in Wall Street landlords

Originally published in Vox on December 2, 2022.
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Institutional housing investors — largely, the commercial banks, private equity, and other financial entitles that flip homes or rent them out — have been the subject of conflicting media messages.

On the one hand, we’re told investors are buying up more housing than ever. In 2021, they bought nearly one in seven homes sold in the 40 largest US metropolitan areas, the most in at least two decades, according to Redfin data analyzed by the Washington Post. In the first quarter of 2022, investors comprised between one-quarter and one-third of home sales in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Miami. The US House Financial Services Committee reported in June that corporate ownership of single-family rental homes has grown 3 percent annually since 2010, “with the third quarter of 2021 posting the fastest year over year increase in 16 years.”

These trends are worrying, researchers and advocates stress, because there’s evidence that corporate landlords, under pressure to deliver big profits to their shareholders, are more likely to evict their tenants, raise rents more aggressively, and shirk responsibility for basic maintenance and repairs. There’s also evidence that some investors have been targeting homes in Black neighborhoods at disproportionate rates, accelerating gentrification and putting homeownership for some families further out of reach.

On the other hand, housing owned by large corporate investors makes up a much smaller percentage of the nation’s overall housing stock than is often suggested by headlines. Institutional investors, referring to entities that purchase 100 or more properties, accounted for under 3 percent of home sales in 2021 and 2022, according to Freddie Mac. So-called “mom-and-pop” investors, who own fewer properties, are growing at faster rates, and according to the National Rental Home Council, only 1.16 percent of single-family rental homes were owned by rental companies. Americans for Financial Reform estimated that as of June 2022, private equity firms owned about 3.6 percent of apartments and 1.6 percent of rental homes.

Defenders of the sector point to research showing that most people moving into single-family rentals are poorer, younger, have worse credit, have larger families, and are more likely to be single parents than their home-owning counterparts. One study published last year estimated that 85 percent of single-family rental residents would not qualify for a mortgage. Taking away these rental options, advocates warn, would just take away more spacious living arrangements for younger families who can’t yet afford to own, or might not want to even if they could.

Others say the focus on Wall Street investors is largely a scapegoat to avoid wrestling with the real culprit of the housing crisis: the dearth of available units. Sam Khater, the chief economist of Freddie Mac, cited labor shortages, land use regulations, zoning restrictions, political opposition to new housing, lack of developers and lack of land as root causes of the housing shortage. And economic research published this summer found that remote work has also increased US aggregate home prices by 15.1 percent since late 2019.

Still, with damning press and congressional investigations into corporate housing abuses, political pressure has mounted on lawmakers to step in. In August, senators heard testimony from people like Laura Brunner, the president and CEO of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority. Brunner detailed how institutional investors have upended their local housing market, and dramatically hiked rents in the process. “We’ve been told by institutional investors that they only own about 1 percent of single-family homes; however … this could mean 50 percent of the houses on a single street,” she testified. “When the geographical impact is so concentrated, it has a game-changing effect on what it means to live in that neighborhood.”

In late October, three Democratic House members from California — Reps. Ro Khanna, Katie Porter, and Mark Takano — introduced a new bill, the Stop Wall Street Landlords Act, to address these growing concerns. Senators have also been getting involved, holding listening sessions with renters and housing policy experts. A spokesperson for Sen. Sherrod Brown told me that Brown is focused on “predatory investors and landlords — particularly deep-pocketed investors taking advantage of new technologies” that price out families from homes and leave tenants with unsafe living conditions. Brown is currently working on “legislative steps to protect families and address these predatory practices,” the spokesperson said.

Khanna said he doesn’t see his new bill as a comprehensive housing solution, and stresses that lawmakers need to stay focused on fighting barriers to new housing construction, increasing housing supply, and expanding down-payment assistance. “But we don’t need to be subsidizing institutional investors to go buy up housing in working-class neighborhoods and holding them for appreciation and turning them into Airbnbs,” he told me. “You could make an argument that it was necessary to subsidize Wall Street investors after the 2008 financial crisis when the market collapsed, but that certainly now has run its course.”

The Stop Wall Street Landlords Act, explained

The stated goal of the new House bill is to deter future institutional investments into single-family homes. It would try to do this in a few ways, including by barring corporate investors from claiming certain tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction, and imposing a transfer tax on the sale value of new single-family home purchases.

The legislation also would bar the government-sponsored mortgage companies — Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae — from assisting certain large investors in financing, and would establish a new tax credit to help affordable housing developers build and rehab homes in low-income areas.

Groups representing institutional investors, unsurprisingly, have come out strongly against the bill. A spokesperson for the American Investment Council, which represents private equity companies, told Vox that “this politically motivated legislation completely misses the mark and won’t help address the real challenges in today’s housing market.”

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David Howard, executive director of the National Rental Home Council, told the Mercury News he believes the bill “will only reduce the availability of single-family rental housing while making it more expensive — ultimately hurting the very people for whom access to affordably priced rental housing is so essential.”

Kristin Siglin, vice president at the National Community Stabilization Trust, a nonprofit that transfers foreclosed and abandoned properties to local housing groups, praised the bill’s inclusion of the neighborhood homes tax credit, which was also included in the Build Back Better bill the House approved last year.

Siglin told me the coalition she leads to promote the tax credit was “really pleased” to see the measure included, and commended the Stop Wall Street Landlords Act for not only including sticks in the form of ending tax preferences for corporate investors, but also carrots, like the tax credit, to increase the supply of homes to sell to owner-occupants. Right now, large corporate investors are often the only entities available with the financing capabilities to make repairs on homes. The neighborhood homes tax credit, Siglin says, can help to fill this gap, and keep more properties out of Wall Street hands.

Khanna’s office said they worked with experts including the Urban Institute to develop their bill. The Urban Institute’s government affairs manager, Victoria Van de Vate, told me she hasn’t read the Stop Wall Street Landlords Act and said her think tank does not suggest bill language or take official positions on legislation. “A team of housing researchers and I met earlier [in November] with Rep. Khanna and his team to discuss policy alternatives to increase rates of black homeownership and the role of institutional investors in the housing market,” she said. “It was a good conversation, and we always welcome the opportunity to share our research, answer questions, and provide evidence-based recommendations about policy.”

Laurie Goodman, the founder of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told me separately that she sees Khanna’s legislation as a very “punitive bill” that would deter institutional investors from buying properties in a way that would be unhelpful. The single-family rental industry does a lot of good things, she added, “all of which are ignored by the critics.” Goodman was not familiar with the neighborhood homes tax credit but argued that institutional investors play an important role in financing repairs that prospective homeowners can’t afford.

Dan Immergluck, a professor of urban studies at Georgia State University who has researched the history of institutional investors on housing markets, told me that while he hasn’t had time to closely read the bill, he does not support allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to help finance large-scale single-family rental operations unless there were “serious strings” attached, like affordability requirements. Immergluck said he’s less convinced simply making it more expensive for single-family rental operators to do business through measures like excise taxes will be effective, “because in places where they already have market power, they could pass those costs onto tenants.”

Where the corporate housing sector is likely going

What about inflation and the much-discussed housing construction slowdown sparked by rising interest rates? Increased building costs have already led to a slowdown in investor homebuying — a decline of 30 percent in the third quarter of 2022, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Redfin also just closed its own home-flipping business, following Opendoor Technologies, another online house flipper, which just posted record losses.

Khanna told me he thinks his bill would help stabilize some of the rising rents by decreasing demand from institutional investors, which still accounted for 17.5 percent of all home sales in the third quarter of 2022. Even if institutional investors only buy up a small percentage of total housing, their presence in the bidding wars can still lead to higher costs for all buyers. And even though investor sales growth has slowed, experts expect their share of purchases to rise again soon, as builders with unsold homes look to sell to rental landlords. Plus a widely expected recession could raise unemployment and make it even harder for traditional buyers to compete with corporate bidders.

While investment firms began purchasing foreclosed homes after the housing crash, investors more recently have been pouring billions of dollars into new build-to-rent communities in more than 25 states. The National Association of Home Builders reported 13,000 such homes were started in the first quarter of 2022, up 63 percent from a year before. In November the CEO of Tricon Residential, a Canadian real estate company, said on an earnings call Tricon has nearly $3 billion it plans to use to buy and build new homes.

The Stop Wall Street Landlords Act will not tackle the housing shortage, Khanna acknowledged, but maintained it’s a necessary part of the legislative puzzle. “We need to massively increase housing supply, we need to figure out creative programs for first-time homeowners, and we need my new bill, which will stop the financialization of housing.”

Anti-abortion groups don’t think they lost the midterms

Originally published in Vox on November 17, 2022.
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When he was campaigning for governor of Minnesota, Scott Jensen first said he’d ban abortions with no exceptions for rape and incest. Later, he said the governor couldn’t do anything about abortion anyway, given Minnesota’s constitutional protections. Last weekend, in a 22-minute Facebook Live video reflecting on his bruising loss, he made a new argument.

“This election was not about inflation, and crime and education…for so many Americans across the country this election was about an intrusion into a person’s autonomy,” he said, referring to abortion. “In the future I think the lesson is clear — at least it should be to Republicans. If you infringe on someone’s freedom, you may well lose. You’ll probably lose.”

The 67-year-old politician and physician announced his support for birth control over the counter, and morning-after pills in every medicine cabinet. “The pro-life movement should not be about trying to determine what the sexual mores or behaviors are of an American country,” he said.

A week out from the 2022 midterm elections, where abortion played a pivotal role in shaping both campaigns and voter turnout, candidates like Jensen, conservative strategists, and leaders of the movement to restrict abortion rights have been taking stock of the results for a cycle that was expected to be a much bigger blowout for Republicans.

Finger-pointing abounds — at other Republicans, at Democrats, at the media.

Some argue the midterm results are less bad than they first seem; despite losing every abortion rights ballot initiative, and some key statewide races that would have enabled the legislatures to pass new abortion restrictions, Democrats failed to unseat incumbent governors and didn’t win enough seats in Congress to pass any federal legislation restoring abortion rights. “If anything was less impressive on election night than the ‘red wave,’ it was the abortion wave,” quipped Catherine Glenn Foster, the president of Americans United for Life.

Others, like Jensen, say the abortion results were terrible for Republicans and the party requires strategic recalibration if they’re to win in the future. The reactions showcase the divisions and potential directions for the anti-abortion movement in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, where the fate of reproductive rights in America now lies largely in the hands of governors, state legislatures, and voters.

Anti-abortion leaders argue the midterms showed politicians who restrict abortion access won’t pay a price

Some leaders and commentators who want to restrict abortion rights say they see no convincing reason to moderate their goals in the wake of the midterms.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, has been working to push back on what she calls a “facile narrative” that abortion rights were a winning issue for Democrats. In a Fox News op-ed she published on Monday, Dannenfelser argued that Republican candidates who went on the offense on abortion, and challenged their opponents’ “pro-abortion extremism” prevailed, citing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, North Carolina Senator-elect Ted Budd, and Ohio Senator-elect J.D. Vance. She contrasted them with Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Adam Laxalt in Nevada, who she said “buried their heads in the sand” on abortion. (Laxalt ran an ad this fall stressing that abortion rights are protected under Nevada law, and Oz mostly focused on how the federal government shouldn’t be involved.)

Dannenfelser argued her movement was just outspent, and dinged leaders like Mitch McConnell for not campaigning against the anti-abortion ballot measure in his home state.

Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, has put out similar glass-half-full post-mortems, noting that public officials who backed or enforced abortion restrictions were re-elected in nearly 20 states. “Democrats didn’t crack state governor, state attorney general, or state house seats in red states that have enforced abortion limits since June,” she wrote. “Abortion activists couldn’t defeat public officials in those states or win the U.S. House or Senate to block those state laws.”

Anti-abortion media ran with similar arguments, emphasizing that Democrats and pro-choice activists failed to unseat politicians in certain races where they made abortion rights central. “Texas Pro-Life Republicans Win Every Race After Democrats Promised to Beat Them for Banning Abortions,” read one report in LifeNews. “Every Pro-Life Republican Governor Who Signed an Abortion Ban Won Re-Election” read another.

John Gizzi, the chief political correspondent for the right-wing NewsMax, published analysis concluding that arguments that abortion hurt Republican candidates are “just a lot of bunk” by “big media” and those who want abortion rights. “In race after race, abortion was not the deciding factor,” he argued, and pointed to New York, where anti-abortion gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin over-performed, and nine out of 10 anti-abortion Republicans won congressional seats. “In many significant races across the U.S., Democrats used the abortion card without success,” Gizzi added.

Other conservative writers joined in to say the results were not as bad as the left suggested. “Despite setbacks, despair is unwarranted,” concluded Jonathon Van Maren in First Things magazine. John McCormack, the Washington correspondent for National Review, described the results as “messy” but noted that there was no evidence Senate candidates paid a price for embracing a 15-week federal abortion ban. “For all the disappointment some Republicans felt on election night, a clean sweep for incumbent GOP governors was no small thing,” he added. “By protecting the Senate filibuster at the federal level, pro-lifers ensured the survival of state laws that have taken effect since Roe … and lived themselves to fight another day.”

And rather than losing because they embraced unpopular positions on abortion, as Jensen, the gubernatorial candidate from Minnesota, asserted, some conservative writers argued candidate quality was the far more persuasive explanatory variable. “I’ll put it plainly: Donald Trump continues to be a significant drag on the GOP,” wrote Alexandra DeSanctis in the National Review. “Nearly every single one of his handpicked candidates failed or underperformed relative to other Republicans, in an economic climate highly favorable to the GOP. That’s the story of last night’s midterms.”

Other conservatives say the midterms show the need to stake out more popular positions

Not all conservatives are viewing the midterm results with rose-tinted glasses.

William Saletan, a writer for The Bulwark, a center-right news outlet, published an analysis calling abortion “decisive” in the midterms and said Republican candidates paid the price. Using national exit polls and a separate study overseen by the Associated Press, Saletan concluded the Dobbs decision influenced which candidates people voted for, and whether they voted at all. “Politically, the result is clear,” he wrote. “Most voters are pro-choice. They don’t like what the Court did.”

Several pieces argued the results reflect the weaknesses of the anti-abortion movement. In an op-ed entitled “Pro-lifers were the midterms’ biggest losers,” writer Ben Kew said the results show “hardline abortion restrictions” will hurt Republicans, and one solution could be to rally behind the “safe, legal, and rare” position espoused by Clinton. “Yet in these febrile and divided political times, anyone expecting an amicable compromise is likely to be in for a very rude awakening,” he concluded pessimistically.

Aaron Renn, who runs a Substack focused on Christianity and politics, said the anti-abortion movement is “dead in the water” and emphasized the degree of actual support from Republican legislators has been vastly inflated in the past. “Conservative Christians need to understand that the majority of the public simply does not agree with their social positions,” he wrote. “This is going to be a painful adjustment for a lot of people who are used to thinking of themselves as a ‘moral majority.’”

To stay politically relevant going forward, some anti-abortion writers urged their allies to seek “compromise and credible commitment to supporting women and children” as Patrick Brown wrote in America magazine. This might require anti-abortion advocates to downgrade their absolutist goals. “Republicans will have to figure how to get half a loaf on this issue because trying to get a whole loaf will cause the oven to explode in their faces,” wrote Ross Kaminsky in the Spectator.

The Wall Street Journal was even more blunt with its midterm assessment. “Independent voters in swing states may be unhappy with the direction of the country, but they didn’t trust the GOP enough to give them power,” the paper’s influential editorial board wrote. “Abortion seems to have been one factor that cut against the GOP this year, and the pro-life party will have to adjust its policy and message for 2024.”

Some anti-abortion leaders say the problem was they were outspent by opponents, and were disadvantaged by a biased media landscape

There were wide spending gaps between anti- and pro-abortion rights activists, and conservatives focused on those in their post-mortems. “During this general election, Democrats spent an unprecedented $391 million on abortion-focused TV ads alone, compared with only $11 million on the GOP side — outspending them more than 35-to-1,” wrote Dannenfelser in Fox News. In Michigan, the pro-choice coalition organizing to pass a ballot measure raised more than $40 million, more than double the $16.9 million the anti-abortion coalition fundraised.

Lila Grace Rose, president of the anti-abortion group Live Action, reacted to the abortion rights ballot measures by saying the results showed “the need to redouble our efforts of education & persuasion on the value of human life” and to “match & exceed the reach & resources of the abortion industry.”

Then-President Donald Trump shakes hands with anti-abortion activist Lila Grace Rose during an event at White House in 2019.

The advantage in spending, anti-abortion leaders argued, was coupled with lies perpetuated by Democrats and the media.

“We need to recognize that voters are regularly lied to about abortion policy, and Republicans don’t do enough to counter those lies,” wrote DeSanctis in National Review, arguing voters in Michigan were presented with an inaccurate picture of the stakes of the abortion rights ballot measure. “For Democrats who spent millions casting their opponents as heartless villains who don’t care if women die, and were met with silence or a weak response, lying worked,” added Dannenfelser.

Van Maren said pro-choice activists had adopted the same misleading playbook as reproductive rights activists used in Ireland. “A relentless torrent of newspaper stories, commercials, and social media ads hammered this simple narrative: Vote for abortion, or women will die,” he wrote. “Pro-lifers pushed back on these claims, but their rebuttals did not receive the same coverage.”

The anti-abortion movement frames their post-Roe efforts as a decades-long project

Many anti-abortion leaders say publicly they are not too worried about the results of the election and predict Dobbs outrage will fade the further away from the decision the country gets. While direct-democracy ballot measures proved a tough vehicle for anti-abortion advocates, they for now take solace that voters seem open to electing anti-choice politicians.

“The midterms were disappointing, but not terrible for pro-lifers,” said Brad Mattes, president of the Life Issues Institute. “Overturning Roe was one generational struggle, persuading people about the evil of abortion is the next generational struggle.”

Ramesh Ponnuru, a National Review editor, predicted after the midterms that most Republicans will keep saying they are pro-life when pressed but won’t talk about the issue much, and others “may now put a higher premium on prudence” in their rhetoric and anti-abortion governance.

Van Maren urged his anti-abortion movement to lean into “victim photography” going forward to show the public gruesome images that could change their mind on abortion. Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said the midterm ballot measure losses convinced her that more focus needs to be on the federal level. “Like other injustices our nation faced in our past,” she tweeted, “some states will just refuse to acknowledge human rights and progress.”

How abortion rights advocates won every ballot measure this year

Originally published in Vox on November 11, 2022.
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Americans voiced their preference for abortion rights on Tuesday, casting votes in support of reproductive freedom everywhere they appeared on the ballot: Kentucky, Michigan, Vermont, Montana, and California.

Counting a pivotal ballot measure Kansas voters weighed in on in August, reproductive rights have been on the ballot in six states since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Each time, abortion rights supporters have won.

While Democratic candidates running on abortion access also did extremely well in their contests this week, the vote tallies indicate that the ballot initiatives were often able to draw even more support than the Democratic candidates, garnering votes from individuals who otherwise cast ballots for Republicans, libertarians, or no candidate at all.

“Organizers communicated in a nonpartisan way and that was key,” said Ashley All, who served as communications director for the pro-choice coalition in Kansas. “Their messaging around personal liberty and reproductive freedom and protecting the constitutional rights of women to make the decisions for themselves resonated because it’s shared American values.”

The organizers also succeeded in winning over voters who may personally oppose abortion or have reservations about it. While a majority of Americans say they believe Roe v. Wade should be upheldroughly one-third of those backing legal abortion do not personally support it. And many who support abortion rights believe it should only be legal in cases of rape or a threat to a woman’s life.

Ethan Winter, the research and strategy director for Families United for Freedom, an abortion rights political action committee, emphasized that the ballot measure campaigns all leaned heavily on persuasion tactics.

“Montana is a heavily Republican state, Kentucky is a heavily Republican state,” he told Vox. “All of these victories depend on Republicans voting for you, on people who self-identify as ‘pro-life’ voting for you.” In Kansas, where Trump won handily in 2020 and registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one, the pro-choice side won by a nearly 20-point margin. Even California’s measure codifying abortion rights in the state constitution passed this week with roughly 6 percent more support than other Democrats currently have on the statewide ballot.

Abortion rights organizers say they hope their successes this year across diverse states inspires other leaders to follow suit. How to get issues on the ballot varies from state to state; in some cases citizens can collect signatures, while in others lawmakers have to approve turning issues over to voters. In Michigan, activists collected more than 750,000 signatures to get their abortion rights measure on the November ballot. In MontanaKentucky, and Kansas, by contrast, Republican lawmakers had voted to place their anti-abortion measures on the ballot.

“Our resounding victory now provides a model for the future of coalition-based reproductive ballot initiatives all across the country,” declared Nicole Wells Stallworth, the executive director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, in a press conference on Wednesday.

“I’m hoping other states are looking at the outcomes of last night,” Jodi Hicks, the head of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told Vox. “And looking at what they too can do and really start polling, message-testing, and laying the groundwork.”

Voters don’t like big status quo disruptions, and overturning Roe was just that

This past summer when Kansas voters went to cast their ballots, advocates for abortion rights were cautiously optimistic they’d have one advantage on their side: status quo bias.

Americans tend not to like big, disruptive changes, which is why political science researchers believe they observe a “status quo bias” when people weigh in on ballot initiatives. Voters often reject measures they perceive as introducing major change.

Anti-abortion politicians in Kansas had proposed an amendment to the Kansas constitution that would have overruled a Kansas Supreme Court decision affirming Kansans’ right to end a pregnancy. Passing the amendment would have given state lawmakers the power to ignore this ruling and legislate a total abortion ban in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

Activists in Kansas, in other words, could frame the amendment as an effort to take away rights Kansans currently enjoyed under their state constitution, something they called extremist, radical, and disruptive. This general electoral instinct to avoid major shifts to the status quo, organizers believe, helped them defeat the amendment in August.

While the abortion ballot choices on Tuesday weren’t quite as straightforward as asking voters whether they want to remove an existing state constitutional protection, organizers did lean on “status quo bias” messaging in their respective campaigns. In Michigan, for example, though Proposition 3 was an affirmative amendment to codify reproductive freedom in Michigan’s constitution, activists framed their language around the idea of restoring the rights of Roe v. Wade, of bringing back the reality Americans had known for five decades.

In Kentucky activists similarly emphasized a theme of restoration. “We focused our messaging on restoring access and making sure things do not go any further in the extremist direction,” explained Rachel Sweet, who led the Kentucky coalition organizing to defeat the anti-abortion amendment.

Abortion rights organizers used state-specific messaging to win

Activists and researchers experimented with different messages and messengers to win their ballot initiative campaigns, deploying themes that were specific to the histories and values of each state.

In Montana, for example, organizers looked to capture the deep sense of pride voters have in their state’s right to privacy. “Montanans of every ideology here are deeply proud of our constitution which enshrines the right to privacy,” said Hillary-Anne Crosby, a spokesperson for the coalition organizing to defeat Montana’s anti-abortion ballot measure. “This amendment really came down to private medical decisions.”

Montana’s referendum — known as LR 131 — was spurred by a bill Republican lawmakers passed last year asking voters to affirm that an embryo or fetus is a legal person with the right to medical care if it survives an abortion or delivery. Under the law, health care providers could face up to 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine if they failed to provide such care.

While Republican lawmakers framed the measure as a moral choice for anyone opposed to abortion, reproductive rights advocates argued that the proposal itself had little to do with abortion and everything to do with palliative care and compassion for bereft parents.

That’s because infanticide is already illegal in Montana, and the idea that infants were being killed after an abortion is intentionally misleading, part of a longstanding effort by anti-abortion leaders to depict “botched abortions” that they say can result in live births.

Under current Montana law, if an infant has a fatal prognosis parents can spend those final and few moments holding their dying child and saying goodbye. Under LR 131, a doctor would have been obligated to take the infant away to attempt medical treatment, even if they knew nothing would work.

In mobilizing support against the referendum, advocates chose to de-emphasize abortion, often not mentioning the word at all. They ran ads featuring neonatologistsobstetricians and pediatricians, and grieving parents who said elected officials wanted to politicize their tragedies. Leaning in on status quo bias, doctors gave media interviews explaining how the proposed amendment would threaten the existing rights of parents and criminalize “the current practice of medicine.”

“We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, we’ve been clear that one of the values of Compassion for Montana Families is uplifting and empowering reproductive and sexual health care,” Crosby told Vox. “But we felt abortion language was a misleading, deceptive thing to be talking about, and we wanted to accurately reflect what the bill in question would mean.”

This doesn’t mean Montana advocates aren’t celebrating the outcome as a victory for reproductive rights. “Conservatives tried to make abortion a boogeyman and people didn’t buy it,” Crosby added.

Vermont organizers also emphasized, in their campaign messaging, doing things “the Vermont way” — referring to the state’s independent and nonpartisan ethos.

Vermont is sometimes seen as this very liberal place because of Bernie Sanders or whatever, but historically Vermont has held a Republican majority as well as the governor’s seat, and Vermonters regularly split their tickets,” said Lucy Leriche, a spokesperson for the abortion rights coalition in Vermont.

Vermont, unlike most other states, also enjoyed 50 years of unlimited and unrestricted reproductive freedom. While states were permitted under Roe v. Wade to restrict pregnancies after viability (typically around 24 weeks in a pregnancy) Vermont lawmakers never did.

“The [anti-abortion] side is very quick to talk about all the bad things that would happen if you don’t restrict abortion rights, but in Vermont we never had any restrictions, so those arguments really do fall flat,” Leriche told Vox. “They don’t stick because we know better.” The measure to codify reproductive rights in Vermont’s constitution passed on Tuesday with 77 percent of the vote.

Abortion rights activists haven’t historically focused on state ballot measures

Shoring up abortion rights on the state level was not something reproductive health advocates prioritized when Roe v. Wade provided a nationwide constitutional protection. Anti-abortion activists would occasionally push state ballot measures, often in deep red states, but fighting them at the polls seemed less critical than challenging them in court for violating Roe.

Ballot measures are a space where there hasn’t been a ton of money on the pro-choice side and I think Families United for Freedom is indicative of more money moving in, and what I hope to be a larger trend,” said Winter. Families United for Freedom raised about $2 million this cycle, contributing $600,000 in Kansas, $275,000 in Kentucky, $500,000 in Michigan and $275,000 in Montana. Rachael Bedard, the PAC’s executive director, told Vox that they partnered with and supported local grassroots organizations, providing them with polling and media support, and avoided “a super-imposed national strategy.”

Sweet, who managed the campaigns in both Kentucky and Kansas, told Vox that their success was driven by the expertise of these local grassroots leaders. “We also had a lot of volunteers who have never knocked doors for a candidate, and they don’t consider themselves super politically active,” Sweet said. “But they are concerned and motivated by this one issue.”

One key research point Families United for Freedom found is that even among voters who supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade, a majority of them want abortion to be legal to save the life of the mother and in the case of rape and incest. Even in a hypothetical scenario in which abortion was illegal, the group found, 16 percent of those who said they approve of the Dobbs decision wouldn’t want the woman who had an abortion to face penalties.

“In other words,” Bedard said, “they disapprove of abortion but less than they disapprove of criminalization.” Winning on these abortion ballot measures, Bedard said, means creating the space for someone to continue living their life as a “pro-life” person, while emphasizing that doesn’t extend to making their neighbor’s choice for them.

“We need to let voters have their own personal feelings about abortion, but invite them to join us in the fundamental belief that women should make the decisions for themselves,” added Ashley All, who joined Families United for Freedom after defeating the Kansas ballot measure. “That is pro-choice and that is a way to really bridge the gap.”

The 3 possible outcomes of the midterms in Congress, explained

Originally published in Vox with Dylan Scott and Li Zhou on November 2, 2022
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Once the dust settles from the midterm elections, what — if anything — is Congress likely to do over the next two years?

Right now, polls and forecasts suggest the Senate still is a toss-up, while Republicans are more likely than not to win a majority in the House of Representatives. That would mean some form of divided government, with Republicans in charge of one or both houses of Congress while President Joe Biden and his veto pen would be able to stop them from implementing much of their agenda. But it’s still possible, although it currently looks less likely, that Democrats could hold onto the Senate, giving them two more years of a Democratic trifecta.

Those three scenarios — Republicans winning just the House, Republicans winning the House and Senate, and Democrats holding on to control of Congress — differ in important ways. A Republican-dominated Congress could create something like gridlock, leading to potential battles over the debt ceiling and government funding and giving the Senate the power to hold up Biden’s nominees. A split legislature, with Republicans controlling only the House of Representatives, would put a focus on investigations and, potentially, lead to a vote to impeach Biden. And if Democrats retain control, they’ll face many of the same challenges they did over the last two years.

Here are the three possible outcomes of the midterms and what might happen once the new Congress begins in January 2023.

Scenario 1: Republicans control both houses of Congress

How likely is it? Not unlikely! Forecasts from Politico and FiveThirtyEight suggest Republicans are favored to win the House, while the Senate is a toss-up that comes down to a few key races.

What’s at stake? If Republicans win control of the House and Senate, they’ll have the scope to pursue a legislative agenda beyond what they’ve promised on the campaign trail — even if President Joe Biden’s veto could ultimately block most of their ability to make it a reality.

GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who would become House speaker if elected, released a “Commitment to America” agenda in September — mostly a vague, one-page outline of Republican talking points like “curb wasteful government spending” and “create good-paying jobs,” though it was sprinkled with a few specifics, like a pledge to hire 200,000 more police officers and end proxy voting in Congress, which allows members to cast votes remotely. McCarthy also promises to “confront Big Tech” and expand school choice and a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

The one-pager and the Republican campaign for controlling Congress mask what are sure to be larger fights within the Republican caucus around fiscal policy. Many House conservatives are interested in using forthcoming debt limit fights to force Democrats’ hands on cutting entitlement programs.

This hasn’t been a center of the midterm campaigns: The Commitment to America agenda says nothing about Medicare or Social Security. But earlier this year, the Republican Study Committee, the House’s conservative caucus that comprises nearly 75 percent of the House GOP, released a 122-page manifesto that pledged to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits by raising the eligibility age as well as pushing beneficiaries to enroll in private Medicare and retirement plans.

In the Senate, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) endorsed the idea of forcing Congress to vote on reauthorizing Social Security and Medicare every five years, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) backed voting on the entitlement programs annually. Some conservatives and even prominent liberals believe Republicans could use the threat of a government default to force Democrats’ hand in these areas, though, for now, Biden has promised to veto any cuts to the programs. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also so far rejected these ideas, calling them nonstarters, but the debate is unlikely to die out.

The Republican agenda for abortion rights also hasn’t been something they’ve sought to campaign on in the midterms but could become a top issue if they take control of Congress. The Commitment to America platform states merely that the Republican Party would “defend the unborn, fight for life,” but the RSC manifesto lists nearly two dozen anti-abortion bills the caucus supports codifying, including a bill effectively prohibiting abortions after about six weeks, and one that would provide 14th Amendment protections to fetuses.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a bill in September banning abortion after 15 weeks. When he introduced a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks in 2021, 45 Senate Republicans joined in support. While anti-abortion groups are pressing Republicans to go on the offensive, it seems for now congressional Republicans are waiting to see how the issue plays out in the midterms.

With two years ahead of the next presidential election, it’s likely GOP lawmakers will be keen to avoid giving Biden more big bipartisan wins, like they did in his first two years, compromising on issues like gun control, infrastructure, and competitiveness with China.

Were Republicans able to retake the Senate, they would be able to vote down Biden’s judicial nominees (including any that come up on the Supreme Court), block them wholesale from consideration, and pressure the White House to pick what they perceive as more moderate options. Republican lawmakers have already signaled that they may not consider Biden’s nominees.

In April, McConnell wouldn’t commit to giving a Supreme Court pick a hearing in 2023 if the Republicans retook their majority. It’s something he’s done before: During the Obama administration, McConnell notably blocked Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from ever getting a hearing by arguing that his nomination was in an election year.

What constraints would the party in power face? The House and Senate will ultimately be limited on what they can enact into law over the next two years, as Biden will remain in the White House with a veto pen he promises to use. The Senate will also lack a veto-proof conservative majority, even if Republicans win control of the chamber. But even if it’s unlikely that Republicans manage to pass very conservative bills into law, a Republican-controlled Congress will certainly be able to stymie Biden’s legislative agenda.

Scenario 2: A divided Congress

How likely is it? Congress could be divided two ways — with a Democratic Senate and Republican House, or the reverse, a Republican Senate and Democratic House. The latter is very unlikely; if Democrats perform well enough to hold on to the House, they’re unlikely to lose Senate control. The Senate is a toss-up while the House leans Republican, so the former certainly could happen.

What’s at stake? In the case of a split Congress, the likelihood of more ambitious legislation passing is exceedingly slim. Instead, the two chambers are poised to focus on their own respective priorities, while facing clashes over must-pass bills like government funding and an increase to the debt ceiling.

As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has made clear, House Republicans are prepared to hold any increase to the debt ceiling hostage in exchange for cuts to other programs like clean energy investments and Social Security. In that case, the House and Senate could face an interminable standoff that could put the United States on the verge of defaulting on its debt, a scenario that could have devastating consequences for the economy.

On the House side, meanwhile, a Republican lower chamber would be able to proceed with its many investigations even if the GOP doesn’t control the Senate. As would be the case if Republicans captured the majority in both chambers, they’d have free rein to hold investigations in the House on everything from Hunter Biden’s financial dealings to the Biden administration’s approach to border security, and they intend to use it.

Investigations and impeachment votes can both proceed without the Senate’s approval or the White House’s signature. Some House members have already said they plan to push for the impeachment of President Biden, and have already introduced at least eight resolutions to do that.

Last week, the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman — who was prescient in predicting that Donald Trump would not admit defeat if he lost his reelection bid — published a piece detailing why he thinks a new House Republican majority would vote to impeach Biden within its first year, largely driven by mounting caucus pressure from election deniers who cast Biden as illegitimately elected.

House Republicans could also push for the impeachment of other high-ranking Biden administration officials, including US Attorney General Merrick Garland, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Vice President Kamala Harris, and hold a series of House investigations next year if they take power, specifically on areas like Democrats’ handling of the southern border, the DOJ, inflation, and the energy crisis. Rep. James Comer (R-KY) is set to lead the House Oversight and Reform Committee and told Politico he also wants to spearhead investigations into the business dealings of Hunter Biden and the origins of Covid-19.

“Part of our constitutional duty is oversight,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a founder of the Freedom Caucus, who’s expected to wield significant influence in a Republican majority, during the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. “We need to know why the Biden administration has taken the intentional position of not having a border.”

What constraints would the party in power face? With Senate control, Democrats could continue to advance more judges and executive branch nominees. The Senate, after all, retains the critical ability to approve judges for district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court with a simple majority. Filling these vacancies will be a crucial priority for Democrats if they’re able to hang onto the Senate, especially after Republicans spent much of the Trump administration attempting to stack the courts in their favor.

“The main difference between a split Congress and one controlled by Republicans completely would be Biden’s ability to fill judicial and other vacancies,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

Already, the Senate has confirmed judges at a rapid clip, approving Biden’s faster than any president at this point in their term since President John F. Kennedy. Biden’s nominees have also included a significant number of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and public defenders, all groups that Democrats could continue to prioritize for these roles if they hold the upper chamber. As of early October, there were still 44 judicial nominees pending in the Senate and additional vacancies that did not have nominees yet.

Scenario 3: Democrats keep control of Congress

How likely is it? This is the unlikeliest scenario of the three, according to the polling and election forecasters. The president’s party historically loses ground in the midterm elections, and Democrats hold narrow majorities as it is. But with an unusual political climate — inflation is up, but unemployment is low, while the Supreme Court’s June abortion ruling has animated the Democratic base — they have at least an outside chance to defy one of the most consistent trends in US politics.

What’s at stake: Democrats would have two more years of complete control in Washington (outside of the Supreme Court). The legislative agenda is theirs to set. What do they want to do?

Based on interviews with current and former congressional staff, as well as lobbyists and progressive advocates, two items would almost surely be the subject of legislative debate and possible action: abortion rights and election integrity.

The consequences of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and anti-democratic radicalism within the Republican Party have been the two of the most consistent themes in Democratic campaigns this cycle.

Both would likely require modifying the filibuster in the Senate, presuming (as we safely can) Democrats are still short of a 60-vote supermajority. That is where the difference between a 50-seat Democratic majority and a 52-seat one matters; Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are resolutely opposed to weakening the filibuster, but incoming Democratic senators will have signaled an openness to it on the campaign trail.

Some bills — the Women’s Health Protection Act on reproductive rights, the Electoral Count Reform Act (if it doesn’t pass this Congress), and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act for election integrity — could serve as a starting point for those efforts, if the filibuster were no longer an obstacle. But they are only starting points and far from finished products, as earlier Senate Democratic disagreements about the WHPA and voting rights laid bare.

Democrats would also have a chance to pass budget reconciliation legislation without having to worry about the filibuster (though they would be limited in what they could do).

“The good news is it’s highly unlikely the government is going to shut down and you can still pass a lot of stuff using the reconciliation process,” said Jim Manley, a longtime strategist for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “Nothing comes easy on Capitol Hill these days, but it helps your odds of getting something done besides continuing to fund the government.”

The contours of any reconciliation bill would depend on the macroeconomic situation. Is inflation still at historic highs? Has the economy entered a recession and sent unemployment soaring? That would dictate, at least in part, how much Democrats might be willing to approve new spending or hike taxes to pay for their spending plans.

The leftover pieces of Biden’s Build Back Better plan would likely be the starting point for any reconciliation bill that the next Congress might decide to pursue in 2023. Democrats passed climate provisions as well as fixes to the Affordable Care Act as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. But entire swaths of the BBB agenda focused on child care, pre-K, and long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities were cut out during the 18-month negotiations that were largely driven by Manchin and Sinema’s desires.

What constraints would the party in power face? The 2024 election looms, with either Joe Biden preparing to run for reelection (more likely if Democrats win a historic victory in the midterms) or a swarm of possible successors jockeying for a position from Capitol Hill. The Senate map in 2024 is much less favorable to Democrats than it was in 2022, which may make Senate leaders reluctant to put their most vulnerable members (in states like Montana, Arizona, and Wisconsin) through a messy legislative debate or force them to take difficult votes.

“If you’re just thinking of it from that perspective, with all those Democrats up for reelection, I question how much of an appetite there’s going to be for a progressive agenda,” Manley said.

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It would also make a difference whether Democrats continue to cling to 50 seats in the Senate, leaving Manchin and Sinema (who are up for reelection themselves in 2024) with an effective veto pen over the legislative agenda. If they can expand their majority to, say, 52, that would give party leadership some wiggle room in deciding which policies to pursue.

Those would likely be difficult debates, on both the particulars of the policy and the prospect of changing the Senate’s rules for good. But progressives argue Democrats would have a mandate to act.

A Democratic victory would reflect “overreach by the GOP in terms of extremism, plus Democrats competently governing in some difficult terrain,” said Mary Small, national advocacy director for Indivisible. “Codifying abortion rights has also been a galvanizing issue for voters.”

Still, progressives hope Democrats feel emboldened if they wake up one morning in November (or December, depending) and learn they are still in control of Congress. They will have passed two major bills (the American Rescue Plan and IRA), weathered soaring inflation, and still earned the trust of voters.

They will also try to learn from the mistakes of the past two years, where they feel a lengthy legislative debate reduced the urgency to get something done as the immediate concerns of voters and lawmakers transitioned from the economic recovery of early 2021 to the inflation crisis of 2022. They are hoping they can tell a more consistent story about how the policies that Democrats are proposing will materially improve voters’ lives.

“Doing nothing is not going to help us make the argument in 2024,” Small said. An unlikely victory in 2022, she said, would call for “repeating their work to call out the extremism of the GOP and to competently deliver on ways that improve people’s lives materially.”

Is the cure for inflation worse than the disease?

Originally published in Vox on October 26, 2022.
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The last year of inflation has disproportionately hurt low-income and nonwhite families — those with the least flexibility in their monthly budgets to absorb higher prices.

Now those same groups could be hurt by economic policymakers’ plan to tackle inflation through interest rate hikes, and in potentially longer-lasting ways.

Last month, leaders at the Federal Reserve predicted that, given their plans to continue raising rates, unemployment would rise from 3.7 percent (or 6 million people) to 4.4 percent by the end of 2023. In plain terms, this means an additional 1.2 million people would lose their jobs over the 15-month period. “I wish there was a painless way to do that,” Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell had said. “There isn’t.”

Other financial analysts projected even higher unemployment to result. Bank of America predicted unemployment would reach 5.6 percent by the end of 2023, translating to 3.2 million more people out of their jobs. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in September that unemployment may need to reach as high as 7.5 percent to curb inflation, which would mean roughly 6 million people losing work.

The Federal Reserve raises interest rates to slow down consumption across the economy: As the cost of borrowing rises, the hope is that people buy fewer things, and prices stop spiraling higher. The latest data shows inflation still up roughly 8 percent compared to a year ago, and recent reporting in the New York Times suggests Fed leaders may even raise rates more aggressively into 2023 than they had previously envisioned. The question is whether the Federal Reserve will be able to hit the brakes when they decide they’ve done enough — or whether it will be too late, and the economy will be hurtling downhill toward a recession that the Fed created but can’t control.

“One thing that’s a very open debate and a very important subtext to all the fights is the question of whether the Fed can actually increase unemployment just a little,” said Mike Konczal, the director of Macroeconomic Analysis at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “And with every million who lose their jobs, it’s that much harder to reintegrate them [into the labor force] later on.”

Stabilizing the economy, Konczal said, is like mending a garment. “You can pull at the threads, but if it tears you can’t just push it all back,” he said. “That’s certainly what keeps me very nervous, that the Fed is so worried it underreacted last year [to inflation] that now it might overreact.”

Some economic experts and journalists are asking if the current pain of inflation outweighs the suffering of a potential recession, and if there are less blunt tools the federal government could be leveraging instead.

“To have a smaller paycheck due to inflation, is that really worse than having no paycheck at all?” Today, Explained host Noel King asked Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari last week. “There’s not an easy answer,” Kashkari acknowledged, ultimately arguing that unemployment affects fewer people than inflation, and it’s easier for the government to target assistance to those who might be hurt.

But higher unemployment and recessions don’t just affect those who lose their jobs, and the assumption that the government would be willing or even able to provide targeted assistance to those pushed out of the labor market beyond the maximum six months of traditional (and relatively meager) unemployment benefits seems highly uncertain, given how Democrats’ more generous pandemic stimulus policies have been blamed for contributing to inflation in the first place. Experts say the country still lacks the infrastructure to deliver more targeted aid, and with Democrats barely even mounting a defense of their pandemic assistance, whether there’s political oxygen — let alone technological capacity — to help those in a recession remains unclear.

On top of all this, if rate hikes do push millions more people out of work, those who would likely bear the biggest brunt of that job loss and take the longest to recover are the same groups suffering most now from inflation: low-income workers, workers with less education, and people of color.

Missing a “soft landing” means millions more people could lose their jobs

The workers who are most vulnerable to near-term layoffs work in construction and mortgage lending, and sell products like TVs and cars. These are so-called “interest-sensitive” industries, particularly responsive to changes in interest rates and borrowing costs. The next hit would be those working in firms that are particularly exposed to financial speculation — like traders and tech companies built around equity valuation.

The Federal Reserve’s goal is to achieve a so-called “soft landing” — meaning they want to lower inflation without throwing the economy into a recession.

Earlier this year Powell, the Fed chair, explained their goal was to make it harder for people to switch jobs, since job-switching and the fierce competition to hire workers were driving up wages. In this scenario, maybe a business eyeing higher interest rates would post fewer new jobs or decide not to fill vacant roles. Maybe an employee would see the hiring landscape as less friendly and decide to stay put. “The idea is there’s a whole lot of activity happening that we don’t see by just looking at the unemployment rate,” said Konczal, of the Roosevelt Institute. “So in this scenario, where it becomes harder to switch to new jobs, the economy still cools without unemployment going up.”

Konczal says there’s some evidence that Powell’s “soft landing” argument has been bearing out over the past two months — the number of new job openings has slowed, as have the number of workers voluntarily switching to take another job. Wage data expected at the end of October should provide a clearer picture of where things stand.

But many experts are pessimistic that inflation can really come down without driving up unemployment, and say that if the Federal Reserve wants to see a genuine drop in prices it will have to force layoffs in less “interest-sensitive” industries, even if that increases the risk of a recession. Fewer people simply work in interest-sensitive fields like manufacturing than they did decades ago.

“That’s where face-to-face services like hospitality start to take the hit,” said Josh Bivens, the research director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “Recessions can have big multiplier effects. Layoffs typically start in construction and then radiate onward, and things can get pretty bad if you have a big spiral.”

It’s harder for less educated, low-income, and nonwhite people to find work after layoffs

While some policymakers are trying to figure out if they could reduce inflation while keeping unemployment around 4 or 5 percent, other economists are sounding the alarm on what even this optimistic aggregate figure obscures — the unemployment rate for Black people is generally double that of white people, and for Hispanic people it’s typically 1.5 times the rate.

In one recent study, researchers found that lowering interest rates disproportionately helped the employment prospects for Black workers, women, and those without a high school diploma. It makes sense — if employers are facing increased competition for labor, they may be less likely to discriminate in the hiring process. Relatedly, over the past year, workers with criminal records and workers with disabilities were more in demand than they have been, as employers struggled to fill vacancies.

“It’s just a truism that when bad things happen in an economy, it’s the marginalized people, the people with less power, who are hurt fastest and most,” said Wendy Edelberg, the director of the Hamilton Project, an economics division within the Brookings Institution. “That should be fiscal policymakers’ laser focus, at all times but particularly in a downturn.”

The government is less likely to offer aid to workers who lose their jobs

When the pandemic hit, and millions lost their jobs or had their working hours reduced, the federal government responded with an array of financial policies to ease the pain such as expanded unemployment benefits, three rounds of stimulus checksrental assistance, monthly cash deposits for parents with kids, hundreds of billions for state and local governments, and subsidies for businesses — big and small.

The investments kept millions out of poverty and evictions below historic averages, and are credited generally with helping the economy rebound much faster than following past downturns, and more quickly than other nations that had less robust stimulus policies.

But now Republicans have latched onto that federal aid as one of the top reasons inflation is at its highest point in four decades. They blame the Biden administration for putting too much money in people’s pockets, allowing them to spend too much and drive up prices. Some argue the American Rescue Plan was simply too big, or not targeted enough to those who really needed help. Economists disagree over how much the pandemic policies are to blame but Democrats, notably, are not touting their investments on the campaign trail, as voters cite inflation as a top election concern.

Republicans are expected to win control of the House, and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has for months attacked Democrats’ Covid policies for driving inflation. This raises the question: If the economy does spiral and workers lose their jobs or their workable hours, what kind of assistance might they expect to receive in that scenario?

“It’s one of the reasons I’m so worried about the Fed potentially overshooting, that we just won’t do that much to help people since we’re told that helping people too generously is what got us into this mess,” said Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute. “I think that’s wrong, but I’m still totally worried about this dynamic.” Bivens also warned that if Republicans control Congress, it might be in their interest to prolong economic hardship ahead of the next presidential election.

“If the Fed slips the economy into recession, what kinds of tools and political capital will be available? That’s a real concern that we aren’t talking about and aren’t being honest with ourselves,” said Mark Paul, an economist at Rutgers who has argued raising rates is the wrong response to the inflation crisis. “In the pandemic, policymakers reacted in a far better way than they have in our lifetime, where, rather than the economy taking 10 years to get to pre-Covid levels, it essentially took 1.5 years. The narrative now is that the government overshot, but the question is what were the other options and what would those have led to?”

Edelberg of the Hamilton Project said if there is a downturn, she hopes we can get “targeted relief” to those most in crisis, so that it only has modest effects on inflation. “We should do that with eyes wide open — knowing it will boost aggregate demand a little bit and that will be okay because a policy should have more than one objective,” she said.

Edelberg acknowledged the country isn’t exactly positioned to distribute targeted relief — the nation’s unemployment insurance system remains in need of serious upgrades. “We should be improving the system so we can find the people who need to get the money, so we don’t need to do things like send checks to everyone,” she said. “We do not have that infrastructure now because we haven’t really valued it.”

Slow wage growth affects even those who keep their jobs

It took 10 years after the Great Recession for wages to finally start rising, long after unemployment had gone back down. Part of this was fueled by state and local minimum wage increases, but part of it, experts believe, was due to a finally tightening economy.

Workers have enjoyed increased power over the past two years amid the even tighter post-pandemic labor market. Wages have gone up, especially for workers at the lower end of the income spectrum, and especially among those who switched their jobs. In 2021, wages grew by 4.5 percent on average, the fastest rate in almost four decades.

Now that we’re finally seeing broad-based gains in the economy, progressive economists warn that aggressive Fed policy could make those raises disappear. One major risk of a recession is slowed wage growth, which can impact everyone, not just those who lose their jobs. Even modest economic downturns can significantly reduce the chance of employers handing out raises. The Federal Reserve has been explicit that its goal is to reach 2 percent inflation — meaning prices would continue to rise in that scenario, just hopefully more slowly and predictably. But if wages are not also rising, then families will still feel worse off and struggle to afford basic necessities.

“This wage growth angle is, by far, the most important reason why just looking at the rise of unemployment in a recession is a radical understatement of how many workers are adversely affected by recessions,” Bivens wrote in July.

One big fear for inflation watchers is the risk of a so-called “wage spiral” — a scenario where wage increases cause price increases, which in turn cause more wage increases. The concern isn’t baseless; wage spirals have happened before, most notably in the US in the 1970s, but it’s certainly not an inevitability. The labor movement was also much stronger four decades ago — over a third were unionized compared to 6 percent of private sector workers today — giving workers the kind of bargaining power they simply lack now.

Fears of a wage spiral have been dissipating somewhat. Wage growth is still higher than pre-Covid levels but has been slowing down this year. Earlier this month, researchers with the IMF concluded that wage spiral risks “appear contained” for now.

What else could be done?

Some economists and writers have warned that raising interest rates further is unlikely to curb some of the root causes of inflation — such as the war in Ukraine and factory shutdowns — and that inflation would come down next year regardless as supply chains get back on track.

Others say more attention should be on things like investigating corporations for raising their prices far beyond the cost increases for raw materials. The House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy held a hearing on these concerns in late September, and three Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill in May that would seek to ban price gouging during market disruptions. Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, pointed to what he called “an extraordinary increase in profit shares in a relatively short period” — rising from 23.9 percent in 2019 to 26 percent in the second quarter of this year.

Some centrist and conservative analysts have framed higher unemployment and a possible recession as simply a necessary if regrettable stage in the life cycle of an economy, almost like a biological reset. “The Fed’s rate hikes will hurt,” said the right-leaning Washington Post editorial board. “That’s unavoidable.”

But “the idea that severe recessions are necessary is absolutely not true,” said Konczal. “That’s the whole point of having a Federal Reserve and macroeconomics. And the idea that recessions are somehow regenerative and healing to the economy is also wrong.”

Whether one needs higher-than-expected unemployment or lower-than-existing GDP to bring down inflation is not really clear. “People are not sure if that’s true,” said Konczal. “It’s a small sample size, and we have only so many economies that you can test.”

Others have argued that fiscal policy — as opposed to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy — demands more attention to combat inflation. (Fiscal policy refers to a government’s decision to tax and spend, whereas monetary policy is about a central bank’s control over the flow of money and credit.) Fiscal policy can be more targeted, but it can also be difficult to pass through the legislative process, and take far longer to have an economic effect.

For example, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) has called for a “production agenda” that would involve new investments in child care, housing, and community college to bring down prices and train Americans to work. These strategies, if successful, would take years however to trickle out. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) similarly argued this past summer that Congress investing in child care would help bring more parents into the workforce, which could counteract inflation, though pouring more money into child care amid a worker shortage, conversely, could also worsen it. In August, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) introduced a bill that would place price controls on utilities, food, and housing, bolster the scope of the White House supply chain disruption task force, and authorize better data collection on corporate profiteering. (Price controls are controversial, and led to soaring prices after they were lifted in the 1970s.)

Paul, the Rutgers economist, helped advise Bowman on his bill and told Vox that he believes the Federal Reserve is not taking seriously its dual congressional mandate for both price stability and maximum employment. “Right now the Fed seems to be focused on price stability at all costs,” Paul said. “Full employment be damned.”

Biden is trying to remake the gig worker economy

Originally published in Vox on October 12, 2022.
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The Biden administration has released a long-awaited proposal that could make it easier for millions of truckers, Uber drivers, freelance writers, home care workers, and janitors to be classified as employees rather than independent contractors — a shift that would grant them access to a host of federal labor protections.

The Biden administration’s 184-page proposed rule would change how the federal agency determines who constitutes an employee or an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1938 law that determines eligibility for protections like minimum wage, overtime, Social Security, and unemployment insurance.

It’s the latest development in a legal back-and-forth between presidential administrations that stretches back more than a decade. If the rule is finalized, it will almost certainly be challenged in court.

The rule could have ramifications for the so-called gig economy. Companies like Uber, Lyft, and Instacart have argued that classifying their drivers as employees rather than contractors would devastate their business models. Other self-employed workers defend their independent contractor status, and say they prefer the flexibility and autonomy they’re afforded as they seek to balance other priorities in their lives.

If the Biden administration’s proposed rule goes into effect — a big if — it could have significant consequences for workers and businesses alike.

In the waning days of the Trump administration, the Labor Department finalized a new rule that gave extra weight to two specific questions when determining if someone is an independent contractor: how much control does a worker have over their work — can they set their own schedule, work for multiple employers, and reject certain projects? And how great is a worker’s opportunity for profit or loss based on their own initiative or investment? One tenet of independent contracting is that there should be “entrepreneurial opportunity” built into the arrangement.

Organized labor has long held that this sort of employee classification test is too narrow, and that a broader “multi-factorial” test should be used to ensure higher working standards for as many people as possible. Union activists say a better test would give roughly equal weight to at least seven factors, including how important the worker is for the employer’s business, and how long the worker is employed.

The Biden administration agrees. It wrote in its new proposal that it sees reverting back to this broader test as “more consistent with existing judicial precedent and the Department’s longstanding guidance prior” to the 2021 Trump rule.

Rondu Gantt, an Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash driver based in San Francisco who organizes with the campaign Gig Workers Rising, said in a statement, “This rule can help establish bedrock protections for app-based workers like me and give us an important tool to fight for respect and safety on the job. Gig workers deserve all of the rights that other employees have, including the right to organize. This rule can also help protect workers all around the country as gig corporations try to bring their abusive model to the rest of the economy.”

Federal courts have rejected past attempts to make the independent contracting rule more worker-friendly

The lines between contracting and employment have been blurring in the age of remote work, but in general, it’s about how much control an employer exerts over an individual performing work for them, and what legal entitlements a worker can expect as a result. One major legal entitlement employees enjoy is the right to join a union. Another is the right to be paid at least the minimum wage, and for businesses to pay a portion of their Social Security tax. Contractors have no such guarantees, but some prefer the flexibility, and say they’d trade the workplace protections for freedom from a boss.

The federal government has not made adjudicating this debate simple. In 1947, Congress explicitly carved out independent contractors from the National Labor Relations Act’s definition of “employee.”

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in its United Insurance decision that the “obvious purpose” of Congress excluding independent contractors from the law was to have the NLRB and courts “apply the common-law agency test” when distinguishing an employee from an independent contractor. Since then, the board and courts have used a 10-factor test to settle the question. Much of the legal debate over the last 15 years has been over whether any of those 10 factors — particularly entrepreneurial opportunity — should weigh more heavily than others.

In 2006, FedEx Home Delivery drivers in Massachusetts sought to unionize with the Teamsters, but after they won their union election, FedEx refused to bargain with the drivers, saying they were independent contractors. The National Labor Relations Board sided with the drivers in 2007, but two years later, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit overturned the NLRB’s decision, pointing to the drivers’ “entrepreneurial potential” — meaning their ability to shape both their work conditions for FedEx and additional clients — as a decisive factor. The appellate judges wrote in their decision that the NLRB “has no authority whatsoever over independent contractors.”

The NLRB chose not to appeal this to the Supreme Court, the only US court whose rulings the NLRB considers as bindingSo when a similar case came back up a half-decade later, the NLRB sided with FedEx drivers again. (This case involved Hartford, Connecticut, drivers who unionized.)

Three years later, in 2017, the DC Circuit rejected the NLRB’s ruling once again, and pointed back to its 2009 decision when it said, “The question before this court was already asked and answered.”

As all this was going on, businesses like Uber that rely heavily on independent contracting continued to expand, and began to look at currying favor with sympathetic politicians who could help codify their legally vulnerable business models. Corporate executives kept a wary eye on the legal battles unfolding in Washington, DC, but few felt real pressure to change their practices amid the uncertainty.

By January 2019, the NLRB, which at this point had a Republican-appointee majority on its five-member panel, formally overturned its 2014 FedEx decision, in a case where a regional NLRB office had found that shuttle drivers who owned and operated franchises of SuperShuttle DFW were independent contractors. This 2019 SuperShuttle decision effectively reverted society back to the old gig economy-friendly independent contractor standard.

Biden’s team has hinted it would be revisiting the misclassification issue

The Biden administration has been building toward action on this issue for years.

Biden’s presidential campaign emphasized supporting and standing with labor unions, and the week of his inauguration he forced out two Trump-appointed NLRB counsels, the first time in more than 70 years a president exercised that power. He then appointed Democrat Lauren McFerran, the lone dissenter in the 2019 SuperShuttle decision, to serve as NLRB board chair, and his administration blocked the Trump independent contractor rule from taking effect.

Biden also nominated Jennifer Abruzzo, a lawyer with the Communications Workers of America, to serve as the NLRB’s general counsel. By August 2021 Abruzzo had issued a 10-page memo laying out her priorities and instructed the agency’s regional offices to prioritize cases that pertain to specific past decisions, including the 2019 SuperShuttle case.

In late December, the National Labor Relations Board announced it would be accepting briefs relating to whether the federal agency should reconsider its standard — again — for determining independent contractor status.

The fierce debate over contracting and the global economy

When the NLRB issued its request for briefs in late December, it asked two main questions: Should the board stick to the independent contractor standard it established in its 2019 SuperShuttle decision? And if not, then what standard should replace it: should the NLRB return to its 2014 standard set by the more union-friendly FedEx Home Delivery decision?

Public interest, government, and industry groups submitted more than 30 amicus briefs and were far from unanimous. While many of the same arguments were recycled from the FedEx and SuperShuttle cases, briefs also featured some new themes, like that misclassification of workers poses an antitrust threat. One brief, filed by the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, argued that “a vague or under-inclusive” employee standard could harm workers, employers, and competition directly.

The Labor Department rule is technically separate from the NLRB request for documents, though it centers on very similar legal questions. Before Tuesday, the Labor Department says, its wage and hour division considered feedback shared by stakeholders in forums held during the summer of 2022.

“Standards and definitions under both statutes are a little different, but it’s definitely the same fruit salad and the two pieces of fruit are right next to each other,” said Michael Lotito, a management-side labor attorney at the law firm Littler Mendelson.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler hailed the draft rule on Tuesday for “restoring commonsense rules to determine who is an employee, and making it harder for employers to intentionally misclassify their employees as independent contractors.” In the organization’s filed briefs to the NLRB, it warned against trying to revert back to a standard that couldn’t survive the courts.

An NLRB brief filed by Democratic attorneys general representing 15 states and Washington, DC, argued that the “entrepreneurial opportunity” standard privileged by SuperShuttle is “particularly vulnerable to evasion” by employers.

They urged instead weighting the three factors that form the basis for the so-called “ABC” tests used by many states to determine employee status, a test that makes it harder to classify someone as a contractor. A worker is only considered a contractor under this test if they have relative independence from the business paying their wages, if their work is separate from the type of work the business is typically engaged in, and if they typically do the type of work that the business hired them to do. In particular, “entrepreneurial opportunity” is insufficient to merit contractor status under the ABC test.

Some groups had urged the NLRB to find a new middle-ground position.

Buckle, a digital financial services company that provides insurance and credit options to drivers for ride-share and other gig companies, said the NLRB “should not be afraid to set a precedent allowing both employees and independent contractors.” For example, they said, their data indicates that 80 to 90 percent of drivers on gig platforms work less than 20 hours a week. But for the 10 to 20 percent who drive 20 hours or more per week, and who “are heavily relied upon” by the companies to maintain consistent service levels, there should be clearer pathways to distinguish between them and the more casual workers.

Other groups pushed the Biden administration to adhere to the status quo. One brief representing 12 Republican senators and another brief representing 30 Republican representatives pointed out that the Democratic-backed Protecting Right to Organize Act, which would make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors, failed to pass in the Senate. “Congressional opposition to the change is, in part, because many Members believe that the current approach is best adapted to a twenty-first century economy,” the GOP officials wrote.

The US Chamber of Commerce, the largest business lobby, also warned of government overreach. There is no reason for the NLRB to depart from its SuperShuttle standard, the Chamber wrote in its brief, and to do so “is a plain instance of its policy reach far exceeding its legitimate regulatory grasp.”

Some groups representing freelancers and small businesses also urged the NLRB against revising its contracting standard, worried they would lose their prized independent status. They pointed to government surveys, like a 2015 GAO report that found more than 85 percent of independent contractors and those self-employed appeared content with their status. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 79 percent of independent contractors preferred their contracting arrangement over a traditional job.

The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council issued a statement on Tuesday calling the Labor Department’s rule “out-of-touch with the modern economy and how people want to work.”

Given this opposition, a court challenge to the rule seems inevitable. Lotito, the labor lawyer, told Vox he thinks the Biden administration’s new rule will fail in court, and pointed to his firm’s successful challenge against the Biden administration’s withdrawal of Trump’s worker classification rule. “My overall sense is that they really did not pay any attention to the [Texas] District Court’s decision; there’s no explanation that I’ve read so far that explains how the Trump rule has interfered with their ability to enforce their mission,” he said. “From an Administrative Procedure Act perspective, I also think this is a straight flop.”

However, no legal challenge can be mounted against the rule until it is finalized. The Department of Labor is currently soliciting public comments on its proposal, and the final rule will likely not be issued for another few months.

The new abortion rights spokesmen: Dudes, dads, and plumbers

Originally published in Vox on October 11, 2022.
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At 11:30 am on June 24, less than an hour after the US Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Dave Portnoy, the controversial founder of Barstool Sports — a site dubbed the “Bible of Bro Culture” — posted a video to his 2 million followers on Twitter.

“We are literally going backwards in time,” he said in a self-described emergency press conference. “It makes no sense how anybody thinks it’s their right to tell a woman what to do with her body.”

“The woke left, the liberals, they’re crazy. They’re insane people,” Portnoy added. “Yet, I end up having to vote for a moron like Biden because the right is gonna put Supreme Court people in who are just ruining this country, taking basic rights away.”

The video went viral. It was a harbinger of how abortion rights would upend American culture and politics, and become a central component for Democratic advertising in the midterm campaign cycle.

“I’m no fan of Barstool, but the Dave Portnoy video that came out after the Dobbs ruling was surprising to me, and pointed to this new segment of the electorate that I hadn’t been thinking about,” said Josh Yazman, a political data scientist at Civis Analytics, a Democrat-aligned research shop.

Yazman is not alone. Over the last three months, as the threats to reproductive rights grew clearer, researchers, activists, and political strategists have started to think more intentionally about how best to target male voters with abortion rights messages. When Roe was the law of the land, advocates could focus their energies on challenging unconstitutional abortion restrictions in court. Now, reproductive rights battles will be shifting to the ballot box — meaning what male voters think about abortion suddenly matters a whole lot more.

Even for men who self-identify as pro-choice, their support for a woman’s right to choose has historically been fairly muted, as guys tend to treat reproductive rights as a “women’s issue” that’s best left for women to lead on. Researchers have found that among those men who have considered speaking out, many decide against it, fearful of saying the wrong thing or claiming connection to an issue that’s not sufficiently theirs. Even in the US Senate, male Democrats who support abortion rights tend to wait for their female colleagues to chart their federal action plans, wary of bad optics and criticism.

Eight in 10 Americans support legal abortion, “but until this summer it’s felt very controversial to people still … and I think the people that we show [in ads] talking about supporting abortion care impacts that,” said Dina Montemarano, the research director for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “I think people on our side are finally realizing that, and wanting to show that variety … [that] the majority does include people who look and feel and act and think quite differently, and that’s good.”

As a result, campaigners have been experimenting with a host of characters not traditionally used in abortion messaging: young “dudes” talking about reproductive freedom as they fix a broken pipe, or male members of law enforcement talking about the importance of abortion access for public safety. There are ads featuring brothers, boyfriends, male doctors, and male faith leaders. In Minnesota, a recently formed grassroots group called Dads on the Doors is mobilizing fathers to stand up for their daughters’ abortion rights.

“No exceptions for rape? No exceptions for incest? $100,000 fines and jail time for doctors?” asked a white man identified as a “lifelong Republican” in a Beto O’Rourke ad that ran in mid-September. “I mean, this is a free country. We need a governor who gets that.”

Sometimes, like in the Beto ad, the particular message the male character is expressing is not so different from one featuring a female lead or targeted to female audiences. But in other cases, researchers are testing messages they say seem to resonate especially with male audiences — for example, narratives about men stepping up to protect women — even if, in some cases, those themes give women viewers pause.

Will Bunnett, a political strategist with the progressive digital brand agency Clarify, has been designing ads this election cycle for clients who support abortion rights.

“The hypothesis is that men are not super good at empathy or understanding and are more likely to listen if we sort of make it about them,” he told Vox. “So we’re looking to tap into male identity. And some of the ways that are proving most effective make me a little uncomfortable personally, but I’m already sold on this issue, and we’re trying to target the people who need to see something and get on board.”

For men and abortion rights, the messenger matters

In early August, Kansas voters cast their ballots decisively against a measure that would have allowed state lawmakers to further restrict access to abortion. It was the first time abortion rights were tested at the polls following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly two to one.

Ads sponsored by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the coalition that successfully defeated the amendment, featured characters including a male pastor, a male physician, and a male narrator warning of government overreach.

Ashley All, who served as communications director for the coalition, told Vox that they purposefully featured different messengers in their ads, even as the messages delivered —protecting the constitutional rights of women to make their own decision free of government interference — remained largely the same.

“Not only do you do a lot of research to figure out the best message to resonate with the broadest set of voters,” she said, “you look at who influences those voters that you need to move.”

In the weeks following Dobbs and the Dave Portnoy video, Yazman started experimenting with different characters in Civis’s pro-choice message testing and noticed that ads featuring “bros” — generally men born after 1981 — were resonating with different kinds of voters. “Traditionally pro-choice ads include older white women that care most about the issue, or young moms sitting in their kid’s playrooms,” he explained.

One ad test compared a 40-year-old white woman named Shannon who had an abortion after she had her first kid with a younger “bro” named Conrad sitting in his bedroom talking about the women he was afraid for in his life. “The bro’s overall appeal was similar, but a lot stronger with men, Republicans, and younger voters, while the mom did better with more traditional pro-choice audiences,” said Yazman.

Typically, Bunnett said, it doesn’t matter too much if the demographic of an ad messenger matches the demographic of the intended audience. With abortion, however, his team has noticed the opposite dynamic: Matching demographics appears to be a much more significant factor in driving an ad’s effectiveness.

Oren Jacobson, founder of Men4Choice, said they see men talking to other men as really key for mobilizing men as “stakeholders” on abortion rights, not just occasional “beneficiaries.”

“It’s harder for someone who is not a man to convince another man that abortion is their issue,” he said. “I think we have to reckon with the reality that a lot of men have heard women talk about abortion for decades and have largely ignored those voices.”

Certain abortion rights messages resonate more strongly with men

Given that many men feel hesitant to engage with abortion rights, advocates say providing them with specific ways to connect can increase their confidence.

“Men might be afraid to speak out because they think they’ll do it wrong, but when they see a man talking about it and doing so in a way that is very supportive, very clear about where they stand, very clear about why they’re fighting, that’s really powerful,” said Montemarano, the research director for NARAL, who led a deep dive into abortion messengers in 2020.

One particularly resonant ad category NARAL found is a “journey story” — an ad featuring a man explaining their path from not thinking abortion was important to realizing that their constituents or loved ones were being affected and they had to get involved. “That is incredibly powerful for men to hear because many of them are in some phase of that journey right now,” Montemarano said.

Another effective strategy: messages that “define the opposition” in a negative, repellent light. Bunnett said they’ve seen that some of their better-performing abortion rights ads with men have taken the approach of emphasizing that men who want to ban abortion are uncivilized, backward, mean, and rude. “Rather than trying to convince you that you’re such a manly man for thinking carefully about abortion, we’re saying, like, you just need to know you’re not the caveman over there.”

Jacobson pointed to the “Call Bullshit” campaign Men4Choice launched, which encourages men “to call bullshit on the assholes who are using their power to control someone else’s body,” he said. “We have to normalize that it is not okay for these guys to do that, and part of the reason it’s seen as okay is because guys like us just let it go.”

A third message that’s proven effective with men in particular is freedom from government control, which allows more conservative men to identify with the abortion rights coalition, even if they personally hold reservations about terminating pregnancies.

The value of freedom and the ability to make decisions without government interference “is something that men resonate quite emotionally with,” said Montemarano. It’s not that women don’t care about freedom, she added, but that’s always been an “easier and quicker” way for men to connect with the issue, whereas women tend to connect initially via other routes.

In Kansas, All told Vox their “government mandate” ad in particular resonated most highly among male viewers.

Harnessing men’s motivation to help women in need

Researchers studying which abortion messages seem to motivate men most effectively have noticed a fourth category, too: Men resonate with messages about caring for their loved ones and generally helping women in need.

Bunnett says some of their most effective ads have tapped into a “hyper-traditional sense of masculinity,” like themes about saving damsels in distress. “An ad might feature a guy saying, ‘Hey, you might not be able to get pregnant, but this is really, really important to the women in your life and they need you to step up,’” he said.

Bryan Bennett, a pollster with Navigator Research, a group that works to provide messaging guidance to progressives, said he typically sees men as notably less receptive to any given abortion message, by about 10 points, with the exception of messages about forcing women to carry to term under terrible circumstances.

Montemarano’s team also found this same pattern — that men are “powerfully motivated” by messages of supporting women. The fact that men often only seem to care about women’s rights as it pertains to their wives and daughters has long been a source of frustration in pro-abortion rights and feminist circles, and NARAL directly addressed the concern that such messages might reinforce patriarchy in a report published in 2021.

“We recognize that, as advocates, men’s desire to support women can sometimes feel paternalistic, disempowering, or condescending. It is certainly true that its manifestation in our society has often been all of those things,” their report read. “Yet we would not want to live in a world in which people did not want to support and care for one another. In our communications moving forward, we need to explore ways to effectively harness men’s desire to support women within a broader message framework that supports a woman’s agency, rather than in opposition to it.” NARAL added that they believe this is “eminently doable.”

Jacobson of Men4Choice said they’ve also seen pro-abortion rights language that can feel paternalistic. “The way a lot of politicians talk about it, it’s through the lens of their wives and daughters, and in our culture change work, we try to take that good intention and instinct and shift it, so it shouldn’t be that you have to know someone who might need an abortion to care about this,” he said.

But he distinguishes between “culture change” work, or challenging and changing societal norms and expectations, and immediate electoral messaging ahead of the November elections.

“I think advertising for a mail piece or a digital ad right now designed to get someone to vote in November necessarily should be different than what someone focused on long-term culture change is saying,” he said, and cited as an example the difference between saying a “woman could be criminally punished” for an abortion versus “a person could be criminally punished.” The former, at least in 2022, is more effective at motivating concern among voters.

In the coming weeks, Men4Choice and Planned Parenthood plan to jointly run ads targeted at young Black men in Atlanta. Planned Parenthood approached Men4Choice out of recognition that their own brand might be less resonant with those voters.

Yazman said that field research Civis conducted in September on millennial and Gen Z men found these groups were “pro-choice but persuadable” — meaning young men were open to abortion restrictions, and could be moved to support them if exposed to certain messages. This highlights the need for abortion rights advocates to reach young men before anti-abortion messengers do.

“I think the Dads on the Doors in Minnesota is great, but I think we also have to talk to 18-, 19-year-old men, so that when they get to that fatherhood stage of life they’ve already been thinking about abortion rights,” Jacobson said. “The older you get, the harder it is to shift your views.”

Philadelphia elected a progressive prosecutor twice. The state government wants to fire him anyway.

Originally published in Vox on October 5, 2022.
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Weeks before the midterms, a political drama is unfolding in Pennsylvania: A state committee to investigate crime in Philadelphia could ultimately impeach the city’s twice-elected district attorney Larry Krasner, who ran on a platform of reducing mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty.

Republicans say their investigation is about seeking solutions for rising crime, but for the past five years, they’ve been eager to connect their anti-Krasner rhetoric to the broader Democratic Party — a narrative that has fueled backlash against progressive prosecutors in other cities and painted Democrats as anti-police. Pennsylvania’s investigation started just weeks after San Francisco voters recalled their progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin.

Krasner’s allies see the probe as a cynical stunt by a Republican-controlled legislature that both underfunds Philadelphia and blocks its leaders from passing tougher gun laws. They also view it as a dangerously anti-democratic effort to overturn the will of Philadelphia voters — akin to the effort to overturn the city’s votes for Biden in the 2020 election.

The committee, dubbed the Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order, was voted into existence by nearly all House Republican lawmakers in June. It’s already embroiled in one legal battle with Krasner, who has objected in court to their sweeping request for documents. To impeach Krasner, the committee might have to demonstrate evidence of misbehavior or corruption — not just ideological disagreement — and that could end up being the subject of yet another court fight.

The backdrop to all of this is the midterm elections. In Pennsylvania, there’s a tightly contested US Senate race where the Republican candidate, Mehmet Oz, has made crime the focus of multiple attack ads. The governor’s race also has implications for 2024 and beyond: The current Republican nominee, Doug Mastriano, led the effort to overturn Pennsylvania’s votes for Biden two years ago.

Mastriano, who is now trying to defend himself against accusations of being anti-democratic, has become one of the few high-profile GOP officials to defend Krasner against impeachment, calling the inquiry “political grandstanding.” And dozens of Democrats, including Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Austin Davis, voted with Republicans in September to hold Krasner in contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena. (Krasner argued in state court that the committee’s subpoena was illegitimate and illegal.)

Some other Pennsylvania Democrats are seeking to distance themselves from the controversy. Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman, who has been running ads about “funding the police,” has not weighed in, and gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro’s campaign also declined to comment.

The committee pledged to produce a report with its findings and recommendations by “the fall” — coinciding with the 2022 midterms.

A pioneering progressive prosecutor confronts rising crime in Philadelphia

Krasner, who was first elected in 2017, was one of the first people to run as a self-described “progressive prosecutor” — part of a growing national movement of candidates who emphasize that the discretionary decisions made by a city’s chief attorney can have a profound effect on mass incarceration.

Since taking office, Krasner has stopped seeking cash bail for some low-level offenses, a move to reduce jail time that some defendants have to serve simply because they’re low-income. His team also stopped prosecuting marijuana cases and most prostitution cases against sex workers, and heavily deprioritized retail theft — something that’s been on the rise in the city over the past two years. His office touts statistics on his website that Krasner has imposed over 29,000 fewer years of incarceration compared to the previous district attorney.

Amid rising crime rates and increasing concern about crime, a growing backlash, led primarily though not exclusively by Republicans, has depicted reformers like Krasner and Boudin as threats to public safety. Researchers have not found a link between progressive prosecutors and local crime rates, and in fact found that declining to prosecute a misdemeanor can significantly reduce the likelihood of future crime.

If more DAs like Boudin and Krasner are booted out of office, reformers fear other prosecutors may lose interest in bucking old “tough on crime” playbooks.

While some of Philadelphia’s crime uptick began prior to Krasner taking office, the situation has gotten worse since the pandemic. Philadelphia’s murder rate went up 58 percent between 2019 and 2021. There were a record 499 homicide victims in 2020, followed by another record-breaking 562 homicides in 2021. The number of murders this year — 409 as of October 3 — is slightly less than this time last year, but still the second-highest the city has seen by this date in 15 years.

Gun violence has also been increasing statewide and nationally since the pandemic started, including in suburban and rural areas. One analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice, a research and policy group, found a 30 percent increase in homicides across 34 US cities in 2020 compared to 2019, and another independent crime analysis found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities.

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for Krasner, noted that of the five largest cities in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s increase was similar to Pittsburgh (where homicides were up 53 percent) and smaller than Reading (117 percent) and Allentown (71 percent). Compared to the other 12 Pennsylvania counties of at least 300,000 residents, Philadelphia’s increase ranked sixth.

Still, the level of violence is hard to hand-wave away with comparative statistics, and because Philadelphia is so large, percentage increases can obscure what are many, many more deaths. Just last week, five high schoolers in Philadelphia were shot, one fatally, after an afternoon football scrimmage, and other crime, like carjackings, has spiked.

Critics of the district attorney allege that his policies have contributed to the rise in crime by sending a message that laws in the city won’t be enforced. They point to declines in conviction rates for illegal gun possession: Between 2015 and 2020, the share of illegal gun possession cases resulting in conviction fell from 65 percent to 42 percent, a decline driven primarily by cases being dismissed by judges and withdrawn by the district attorney. The district attorney said that some offenders went through diversion programs instead of facing jail time and that police brought forward weak cases that were too difficult to win in court.

Krasner’s supporters stress that the lagging performance of police should get more attention. From January 1, 2017, through September 18, 2022, Philadelphia police made arrests in less than 40 percent of homicide incidents in the city and just 18 percent of nonfatal shootings. The district attorney cannot charge those who have not been arrested.

Krasner has argued more energy should be focused on improving the low clearance rate for shooting cases rather than on trying to remove illegal guns from the streets. (In February, the Philadelphia Police Department launched a new division focused on investigating nonfatal shootings.) Roh, Krasner’s spokesperson, also noted that the DA supports a host of enhanced gun safety regulations, measures opposed by Republicans on the state level.

Even amid the rise in crime, Krasner easily won his reelection in 2021, earning more than twice as many votes as his Republican challenger, Chuck Peruto — who campaigned on getting tougher on crime. While Krasner faced a heated primary, beating a prosecutor backed by the city’s police union, he barely campaigned in the general election against Peruto and declined to debate him. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia seven to one, and the city hasn’t had a Republican DA in over three decades.

Krasner has been a target of attacks for Pennsylvania Republicans for the last half-decade, but the impeachment inquiry is a new escalation. The investigation began in June after three House lawmakers who live in districts far from Philadelphia circulated a memo seeking their colleagues’ support for impeaching Krasner for “dereliction of duty.”

About two weeks later, 110 Republicans and four Democrats in the Pennsylvania House voted against 86 Democrats to establish the committee, which has subpoena power. In July, Pennsylvania’s Republican House speaker appointed five members to the committee, including two Philadelphia Democrats who had voted against the inquiry; one, Danilo Burgos, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he only agreed because he was told they’d be investigating crime statewide. But Republican lawmakers voted against an amendment supported by Democrats that would have expanded the committee’s scope to study statewide violence.

Michael Straub, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s House speaker, defended the narrow focus. “I mean, Philadelphia is such a crucial place in the state,” he told Vox. “So much of what makes Philadelphia relevant to the rest of the country and rest of the world is its population and culture, so making sure Philadelphia is safe and vibrant and attracting people is important to everyone regardless of political party.”

Republicans are now trying to claim this is not necessarily about impeachment

Despite the unambiguous origins of the committee, Republicans are now claiming that their work should not be assumed to be about impeachment. The committee “has a wide-ranging scope and is much broader than a mere impeachment inquiry,” said Jason Gottesman, House Republican caucus spokesperson, when Vox asked about the anti-democratic implications of the probe.

Unlike other states, Pennsylvania voters cannot recall elected officials, and there have been only two successful impeachments in state history — a state supreme court justice in 1994 and a district judge in 1881. The state constitution says “the Governor and all other civil officers shall be liable to impeachment for any misbehavior in office,” although Krasner’s office argues this language applies only to elected state officials, not local politicians.

Some reports have suggested the “any misbehavior in office” language is vague enough to include general discontent with how an official approaches their job. Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor who teaches a course on the Pennsylvania Constitution, told Vox that the select committee would need to find actual evidence of corruption or misbehavior to impeach Krasner. Simply disagreeing with his policies would not be enough.

“The idea that the constitutional language is so broad that it could mean anything, I don’t think that’s the case,” Ledewitz said, pointing to the statutory removal provisions, and contrasted them with the looser standards of impeachment at the federal level. If the Pennsylvania legislature does move to impeach Krasner, Ledewitz said they’ll need to prepare for it to be challenged in court, like it was in Pennsylvania in 1994.

In August, the select committee issued its first subpoena of Krasner, requesting documents related to his policies including on bail and plea bargains. They also asked for documents on prosecuting police officers, and the “complete case file” of Ryan Pownall, a former Philadelphia police officer who faces third-degree murder charges for killing a Black man in 2017. Pownall is set to go on trial in November.

Krasner allies say the select committee’s interest in these case files reveals they are more interested in shielding police from accountability than protecting victims of crime. Vox asked the Republican chair of the select committee, Rep. John Lawrence, why these documents were being prioritized in the investigation. Gottesman, answering on Lawrence’s behalf, pointed to three press releases from Lawrence that did not directly address the question.

In a letter sent to the committee in August, Krasner’s lawyers asked the committee to withdraw their requests and end the investigation, and later petitioned a state court for relief. They argued in legal filings that the probe is illegitimate because it serves no proper legislative purpose and Krasner has committed no impeachable offense. They also said that impeaching Krasner would violate the constitutional rights of the Philadelphia voters who elected him, that documents for the pending Pownall trial are privileged, and that it would be illegal to disclose grand jury materials.

The select committee — which asked for the “complete case file” of a pending murder trial, including documents “related or referring to the investigative grand jury proceedings” — denies it sought any privileged materials. The committee’s interim report issued September 13 noted that the district attorney’s office could withhold privileged materials if it provided a list of them.

Krasner’s lawyer, Michael Satin, told Vox that they would not produce such a log when the request was “patently improper” and an abuse of power by the legislature. “Courts, not legislative bodies, are best equipped to resolve disputes involving a subpoena, especially one that involves an inquiry into a pending criminal case,” said Satin. The select committee has asked Krasner at least twice in writing to withdraw their court petition.

But state lawmakers — including Democrats opposed generally to the impeachment inquiry — were not happy that Krasner resisted the legislature’s subpoena and voted 162-32 to hold him in contempt. Republicans like Rep. Lawrence claimed Krasner “willfully neglected” the subpoena, though Krasner’s team pushed back, saying they followed the law by registering their objection with the judiciary, in addition to writing their objections to the committee.

Rep. Jared Solomon, a Democratic state rep from Northeast Philadelphia, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he saw Krasner’s resistance as “exactly the same” as Steve Bannon, who was convicted of contempt for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas into the January 6 investigation.

About a week after the contempt vote, Krasner’s team began providing some records to the select committee — primarily those that were already available online on their website. If Krasner’s team had provided those documents to the committee initially and only objected to the files related to the pending murder trial, it’s unlikely as many Democrats would have held the district attorney in contempt, but Krasner’s team didn’t want to grant legitimacy to what they saw as a sham investigation.

“This impeachment investigation is absolutely just a witch hunt. I’m on the judiciary committee and I have voted at every instance to not proceed with this, but I’m a lawyer and so is District Attorney Krasner, and legal subpoenas are legal subpoenas,” said Rep. Emily Kinkead (D-Pittsburgh), who voted to hold Krasner in contempt. “While I understand everything the legislature does is inherently political, we have the right to issue subpoenas and if he believed there were privileged items that were requested, he should have created a privileged log, to say, ‘These documents exist but you’re not entitled to see them,’ but he didn’t even do that.”

Impeachment looks less likely in the Senate than in the House

In order to impeach, a majority of members in the Republican-controlled House would need to vote in favor, and then two-thirds of the state Senate would need to, too. That means 34 senators would need to vote in favor of impeachment, and there are 28 Republicans currently in the chamber.

Despite dozens of Democrats voting to hold Krasner in contempt, it still might be hard to get six on board for impeachment, especially when the specter of Republicans trying to throw out Philly votes two years ago still looms so large.

“Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” Trump proclaimed in the fall of 2020, in an attempt to gin up distrust about election integrity in Pennsylvania’s biggest city. Following the 2020 election, Trump put on blast a Republican election commissioner from Philadelphia who found no evidence of voter fraud, insisting “he refuses to look at a mountain of corruption & dishonesty.”

Krasner performed especially well in his reelection campaign in areas with high levels of gun violence, giving the district attorney confidence to say his progressive policies were backed by a mandate from the people most affected.

Progressive allies of Krasner have been organizing over the past few weeks to send a message to Democratic state officials that voting to impeach Krasner would be aligning themselves with Republican election deniers.

“We’re not just going to roll over and pretend that there’s not an attack on Philadelphia, on Black and brown people,” said Tonya Bah, a Philadelphia activist who leads Free the Ballot. “For Democrats to side with Republican leadership to harm someone that we elected, it is very disheartening, and quite frankly, we have to draw a line in the sand.”

On September 23, the Working Families Party, a union-backed group that helps elect progressive candidates locally and nationally, announced it would be rescinding five midterm endorsements of Democratic state reps who had voted to hold Krasner in contempt.

Vox contacted the five Democrats who lost their WFP endorsements. Two elected officials from Pittsburgh — Reps. Jessica Benham and Emily Kinkead — said they didn’t even know they had received the WFP endorsement but were not planning to vote for impeachment.

“I voted to hold the DA in contempt because legislative bodies have jurisdiction to issue and enforce their own subpoenas,” Benham said. “That the DA responded in part to the subpoena after the contempt vote, which carried no actual penalty, demonstrates that he could have responded in part prior to that vote, but chose not to for reasons unclear. Nevertheless, I will be voting against impeachment if that charge comes before the House, as I respect the will of the voters.”

Rep. Danielle Friel Otten of Chester County also said she views her subpoena vote as very different from any vote to remove someone from office. “For me, the vote to find DA Krasner in contempt of the House was about equal application of the law,” she told Vox. “This was a procedural vote about responding to a lawfully issued subpoena. Larry Krasner was duly elected by the voters of Philadelphia, and impeachment requires a high bar. To this point, I’ve seen no evidence of any impeachable offense.”

Vanessa Clifford, the mid-Atlantic political director for the Working Families Party, told Vox both Benham and Kinkead had submitted candidate questionnaires applying for WFP’s endorsement, and were both personally notified that their state committee had endorsed their reelection campaigns.

Rep. Rick Krajewski, a Democratic state House lawmaker representing West Philadelphia who voted against holding Krasner in contempt and was disappointed by the nine Philadelphia state reps who did, said Krasner is an easier “punching bag target” than, say, local judges, because there’s only one of him. Pinning the city’s problems on the district attorney is also easier for state Republicans to do than investing in Philadelphia communities, schools, workers, and parks and recreation.

There’s no doubt that Philadelphia has real issues with people feeling safe, Krajewski added. “But as a result, we’re seeing a return to ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric, to overpolicing, and in my opinion, that is the wrong response to this moment,” he said. “We’ve seen that during the Reagan era, the Nixon era, an investment in crackdown does not work. I think for myself and other Democrats who support Larry, we’re having real conversations with our community about what this could mean for our democracy and how we can stand united.”