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The latest haboob in Washington concerns whether the Supreme Court will overturn Roe vs. Wade. Could that affect the federal workforce, though? It’s not an outlandish question. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the latest from WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.
Tom Temin: And Mitchell, there is at least one senator that is looking at the federal workforce implications of this potential overturn.
Mitchell Miller: Right. A lot of people may be surprised by this, you know, the Senate this week will plan to vote on legislation that would codify Roe vs. Wade on Wednesday. Democrats don’t have the votes to get that passed. But as they were talking about their various strategies and trying to protect abortion rights, this interesting point related to federal workers came up and Washington state Sen. Maria Cantwell said something I had not heard before. She argued that if the Supreme Court decision goes forward, it could have an unanticipated impact on federal agencies, and even argues that it might be a brain drain her contention is that some federal workers, especially women may not want to work in areas where abortion has been effectively banned. So for an example, she pointed to NASA workers in Florida, where there are tight restrictions, and a lot of other states where they’re going to be trigger decisions in connection with Roe v. Wade, if it goes in the direction that it’s expected. All of this, of course, remains to be seen. Of course, as it stands now, the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program does not allow for the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. And regular watchers of Congress know that for many decades, the Hyde Amendment still remains in effect blocking federal Medicaid funding for abortion services. So we’ll be watching these issues. It could have an impact on federal employees in a variety of ways.
Tom Temin: Yeah the question is, you know, what, in a practical sense could Congress do about that particular issue, and you’re not going to close down all of the NASA facilities in Florida, because nobody wants to work there. So I just wonder, does she have any legislative ideas in mind here or just was that kind of speculation?
Mitchell Miller: I think it’s still in this kind of speculative stage. I think a lot of Democrats, frankly, are just working around the edges looking at a variety of different things, you know, they’ve floated this idea through the White House, that they might actually utilize Medicaid so that it could somehow help to pay for people with low income to go to other states. But a lot of these things, as you point out, they’re really in the speculative stage right now. But it is interesting how they’re touching on a variety of issues.
Tom Temin: Now, the House, just to switch gears here, has been out now and they’re back in this week. But of course, some members have already expressed lather on both sides over this potential decision. What else is going on? They’ve still got some work to do. And I’m just wondering if any of this will throw off the progress made by the four corners, so to speak, meetings of earlier, on the budget for 2023?
Mitchell Miller: Exactly. I mean, there’s been so much attention from the past week related to the Supreme Court. Let’s not forget, there are huge issues coming for Congress right now. As you point out, there’s the budget, which they’re still trying to grind out. And with the House coming back this week, those four leaders will try to get together on appropriations and try to move things forward. Right now it’s still kind of in the staff stage. And then you have the big issues like Ukraine aid – $33 billion that the president wants. There really wasn’t much progress to speak of last week in connection with that, because of the whole kerfuffle related the Supreme Court. And then related to that is COVID funding, senators want $10 billion in COVID funding, at least on the Democratic side. Republicans don’t really want that. And it remains to be seen whether it’s going to be tied to Ukraine aid, or I think more likely, the two are going to have to be split. But then even if they’re split, then there’s another issue. And that’s immigration and Title 42. Of course, that was the policy that was put into effect under former President Trump that allows for basically migrants to be turned away rather quickly at the border in connection with health related issues. In just a few weeks, the Biden administration wants to drop that. Senate Republicans want to have an amendment taken up that would prevent that from happening. So you have all of these different issues swirling around in addition to the anticipation on the Roe v. Wade decision, so lawmakers have a lot of work to do.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, he’s Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And return to the office continues to be something that agencies are really having a difficult time with. And we see this happening at Social Security Administration. This got Hill attention?
Mitchell Miller: Absolutely. A lot of lawmakers are really concerned about what federal agencies are doing in connection with getting people back into the federal offices. And as you know, there was a recent release of all these pulse surveys in connection with federal employees. And one of the agencies that had the biggest problems, at least in terms of morale and concerns about returning to the office is the Social Security Administration. And the head of the Social Security Administration, as Federal News Network reported, is really concerned about these high rates of exhaustion. They’re not getting the support they need, at least a lot of employees feel that way. And it had some of the lowest ratings, frankly, of any federal agency in connection with just getting basic guidance about what’s going to happen. And so this agency along with many others is trying to figure out what it’s going to do. Social Security Administration, as some of these other agencies, is dealing with a real deficit in the number of workers it actually has. Historically, it’s down probably to its lowest point in about a quarter century. And then there are other issues such as HUD. One survey found that four in 10 of those who work there said they would get a job somewhere else. And that could include, of course, the private sector, if it provided more flexibility or remote workplace options. So this is an issue, again, that many of these agencies are still struggling with as they try to figure out exactly how to get people back into the office and yet still allow workers to have some of that flexibility that a lot of them frankly liked as they went through the early stages of the pandemic.
Tom Temin: And meanwhile, the IRS had a hearing this past week, and they are having a problem that has to do with being in the office, which is mainly all of the paper that people still mail to IRS offices.
Mitchell Miller: Right. As much as the IRS would like everybody to just send theirs in on a computer. It just doesn’t happen. And that is the most labor intensive issue that the IRS is dealing with is this paper issue. Many Americans still because either they don’t have access to computers, or they just don’t want to do it, or they always did it that way, are still sending in all of this paperwork and the IRS commissioner Chuck Reddick TOLD US Senate subcommittee last week that they’re trying to get some of their vendors to figure out how they could digitize these pieces of mail that come in up to more than 100 million pieces of mail. He did say the IRS is making some progress. It’s a long slog in connection with getting through this huge backlog that they’ve had that taxpayers have been complaining about. It’s just under 2 million, about 1.8 million unprocessed tax returns, again, another area where lawmakers are really concerned with oversight on the IRS.
Tom Temin: Plus there’s money of those tax returns and the government might want to get its hands on there. Golly! Well, again, how does this all add up to any kind of work on the budget as the summer starts to have its Advent? And the end of the fiscal year is almost coming into view soon? There was that four corners meeting, the appropriators and ranking members from the Senate and House, but is it gonna go beyond that at this point with everything else they’re embroiled with?
Mitchell Miller: Well, it’s really interesting because the four corners, when they speak to reporters here on the Hill, they all give these basically optimistic indications that they’re going to move forward, but they’re always kind of a little bit vague or a little bit opaque, and it’s really unclear exactly how far along they truly are. I think the real nitty gritty is going to happen in these coming months. Obviously it has to. And lawmakers know that they just have to get this done. It’s got to be done.
Tom Temin: Yeah so maybe it’s more like a corner stone coming around the corner here? All right, Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. As always, thanks so much.