TIME Careers & Workplace

7 Surefire Ways to Write the Perfect Email Subject Line

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Doing it right is not as obvious as it might seem

No matter how well an unsolicited email is crafted, the cold reality is that it’s likely to end up in the recipient’s trash folder, unread, if the subject line falls flat. We asked executives who receive hundreds of emails on a daily basis how they decide — at a glance — which ones they deem worth a few seconds of their time to open and skim. Here’s what to put in your email subject lines to elevate them to click-worthy status.

A personal reference. “Jim Smith suggested I contact you” — this is the gold standard for unsolicited emails. Mentioning a mutual acquaintance the recipient knows and respects paves the way for you. Yes, this requires that you have a connection in common, so it’s not the easiest threshold to cross. But some busy execs suggest it’s worth the trouble to seek one out, because that’s the only prayer your email has of making contact with them.

“The people you most want to reach are the people who, by default, delete emails,” says Seth Godin, an author, entrepreneur and blogger who maintains that a mutual reference is the only way to crack a top prospect’s inbox.

A specific reference to them. “Ideally, it mentions my company, products or projects, proving that it’s actually specifically meant for me rather than a generic blast,” says Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine who went on to lead tech startup 3D Robotics. “[Make it] something specific and relevant to what I do.”

An introduction to you. “When cold contacting someone I like to specify who I am in the subject line,” says Cal Newport, a Georgetown University assistant professor of computer science and author of four books about excelling at school and work. “For example, a common subject line of mine is ‘a note from a Georgetown professor,’” he says.

A reminder that you’ve met. Even if you’ve met the recipient before, a nudge to refresh their memory can keep you out of the trash folder, especially if it was a fleeting encounter or a long time ago. “I tend to steer people away from ‘great to meet you’ or ‘follow up’ email titles,” says Deborah Asseraf founder of experiental marketing company Popcorn Productions. “Instead, it should be ‘met you at event x’ — something that’s clear, concise and gets the intention of the writer across.”

What you want. “I appreciate a subject line that specifies what action if any is being asked from me,” Newport says. “This calibrates my expectations for an email and makes it less daunting.” If you’re looking for a data point, email address or some other request, say so upfront rather than making the recipient wade through your email looking for it.

Pertinent details. “In an age when we are all so strapped for time and used to text messages, I like to view my subject lines as a text message,” says LisaMarie Dias, who owns a new media marketing company. This works especially well if you want to remind somebody of an upcoming event or appointment, she says. “Even if they don’t open the email… they have seen the full reminder.”

Plain English. Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, says “obviously commercial emails, spam or boring headlines” go straight into his trash folder. If your email subject sounds like a sales pitch, is stuffed with jargon or overwrought prose, your recipient isn’t going to take the time to parse your message — they’re just going to ignore it.

TIME Spending & Saving

5 Weird Reasons Your Credit Card May Be Declined

American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa credit cards are displayed for a photograph in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Credit-card firms caught off-guard by U.S. Senate passage of curbs on debit fees are facing what one executive sees as a "volcanic" eruption of legislation, including possible limits on interest rates. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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You might never see these major headaches coming your way

When President Obama mentioned that he’d recently had his credit card declined at a New York City restaurant, the news was kind of funny. The leader of the free world getting his card rejected? But all joking aside, it can happen to anybody, for any number of reasons. “I guess I don’t use it enough, so they thought there was some fraud going on,” the President said.

That’s actually a pretty common reason issuers will freeze a card, experts say. Here are some other unexpected reasons your card could be declined. Here are some others they say you should watch out for, so you’re not stuck standing at a payment terminal trying to explain, like Obama, that no, you really do pay your bills on time.

You hit the road. “[If] you make purchases the same day in distant locations — you buy breakfast in Toledo and then you’re shopping in New York that evening — your card issuer may not know you’re traveling and could decline the purchase,” says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com.

You’re paying a foreign company. If you’re traveling overseas, especially in a country where card fraud is more prevalent, or if you’re making a payment to a business based overseas, that could get your card flagged, experts say.

Your limit was cut. If you got a limit decrease on a credit card that you forgot about, or if you missed the notification, you could be denied if a purchase would push you over that new limit, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of Evolution Finance. On a related note, if your card has expired and you’re not using the new one, you could be declined.

Your funds are tied up in a hold. Businesses including gas stations, hotels and rental car companies often put a hold for a certain amount — which can be hundreds of dollars — onto your card when you initiate a purchase, warns Edgar Dworksky, founder of Consumer World. “If you are near your limit before this, these temporary charges could put you at your limit, and subsequent purchases elsewhere will be denied,” he says.

You’re spending big. “A large purchase like electronics, appliances or an expensive vacation all could trigger a decline if it’s outside your normal spending pattern,” Detweiler says. Likewise, if you’re spending big bucks on luxury goods popular with credit card crooks like jewelry or electronics, your issuer might suspect fraud.

TIME Careers & Workplace

The Exact Perfect Amount of Time to Take a Break, According to Data

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Sam Diephuis—Getty Images/Blend Images RM

The right amount of mental detachment now and again can actually make you much more productive

A lot of productivity gurus advise taking breaks during the day to keep from burning out. But how often should you take breaks, and how long should they be? That’s not as easy an answer.

Until now.

Productivity app DeskTime lets employers see if their people are working or goofing around on Facebook or Buzzfeed. It sifted through the computer activity data of its 5.5 million daily logs to come up with the 10% most productive workers, then it took a peek at how they spend their time during the day.

The result: The most productive workers engage in job-related tasks for 52 minutes, then take a 17-minute break. That 15-to-20-minute window is productivity’s “golden hour” (or quarter-hour, as the case may be). It’s long enough for your brain to disengage and leave you feeling refreshed, but not so long that you lose focus and derail momentum on what you were doing.

The key to getting the most out of those breaks is to throw yourself into your work during those 52-minute increments, since you know there’s a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

“The notion that whatever you do, you do it full-out,” DeskTime says on its blog. “During the 52 minutes of work, you’re dedicated to accomplishing tasks, getting things done, making progress. Whereas during the 17 minutes of break, you’re completely removed from the work you’re doing – you’re entirely resting.”

Giving your brain some down time to avoid losing focus and making sloppy mistakes that slow you down has proven benefits. Wharton School doctoral student Hengchen Dai, discussing her new research, tells the Harvard Business Review that breaks make people more diligent. “The more relaxed and disengaged from work people feel during a break, the more likely they will be to benefit from taking time off,” she says.

In a study of doctors, Dai and her co-authors found that those at the end of their shifts washed their hands less frequently — a mistake that could put themselves and patients at risk.

So don’t feel guilty about taking a walk around the block or checking your fantasy football stats. As long as you jump back into work with both feet, that physical and mental disengagement makes you more productive.

TIME Saving & Spending

Here’s Exactly How You Waste $1,700 Every Year

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If you do this, you might as well be lighting a pile of money on fire

Traffic congestion isn’t just a frustrating part of commuter life; it’s expensive. A new report finds that every household with a car-commuting member loses $1,700 a year in time and gas burned thanks to bumper-to-bumper traffic.

If you think that’s bad, it’s going to get worse: Researchers predict that annual cost will soar to $2,300 by 2030. Between now and then, the total tab adds up to $2.8 trillion.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research found that last year alone, wasted time and gas from sitting in traffic cost us $78 billion, and it warns that we’ll face greater congestion in the future because our population is growing and we’ll buy more cars, adding to the rush-hour standstill. (The study was commissioned by INRIX, a company that makes traffic-navigation software.)

Researchers say traffic jams also generate indirect costs. The group estimates that $45 billion worth of costs incurred by freight stuck in traffic gets passed along to consumers, and the carbon from the gas we burn has an annual cost of $300 million.

An expanding population and economy are the main culprits, says INRIX CEO and cofounder Bryan Mistele. More people and a higher GDP make car ownership more ubiquitous and more affordable.

And while you might think recent decreases in the price of gas might help, researchers say this actually hurts our traffic prospects in the long run: Cheaper gas means people are more willing to plunk down the money for a car and more likely to get behind the wheel, rather than considering alternatives like consolidating trips or carpooling. This, of course, means more vehicles clogging our roads at any given time.

According to the American Automobile Association, idling burns about a gallon of gas an hour even if you don’t go anywhere. So, what can the average commuter do?

Unfortunately, the answer for many right now is “not much.” Mistele suggests that in-car software or smartphone apps can help by giving drivers real-time congestion information and suggesting alternate routes. (That’s true, but sometimes even an alternate route will leave you staring at brake lights as the clock ticks.) Workarounds like alternative work hours are telecommuting can help, if you’re one of the lucky few who has that kind of job flexibility, but many of us don’t. Alternatives like public transportation, walking or biking will work for some, but will be inconvenient for anybody trying to haul a little league team or a warehouse club-sized package of paper towels across town.

Along with trying to consolidate trips and carpooling, the AAA recommends resisting the temptation to speed up as soon as there’s a bit of a break, then jamming on your brakes again a minute later. “It takes much more fuel to get a vehicle moving than it does to keep it moving,” the group advises, so try to keep a slow and steady pace if you can. Get the junk out of your trunk and remove unused third-row seating to lighten your load and improve your mileage.

TIME Shopping

The Very Costly Mistake Almost All Shoppers Make

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It's costing us billions every year

Buying store-brand items to save money seems like a no-brainer, but many of us still don’t — even though buying generics could save American shoppers $44 billion a year. Wonder why we’re willing to pay double or triple for virtually identical products that carry a name brand? A new research paper explores why we do it and gives us hints how to stop it.

Matthew Gentzkow, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and one of the authors of the study, says research shows that people who are experts in areas like food or medicine tend to buy more generics in those categories. Pharmacists, for instance, are much more likely to buy generic over-the-counter headache medicine. Chefs have a greater tendency to buy store-brand pantry staples like sugar, salt and baking mixes.

This observation leads Gentzkow and his team to theorize that the rest of us pay more for name brands because we lack the knowledge base these culinary or medical professionals have. Pharmacists know that CVS-brand ibuprofen is literally the exact same medication as Advil, so they’re less susceptible to the marketing message that the name-brand pills carry an advantage that justifies their higher price.

The rest of us? Not so much. We default to the marketing machine that tells us name brands are somehow inherently better. To be fair, that’s because there is a difference in many cases. In many categories of stuff we buy, you get what you pay for — but marketers have highjacked that and pushed on us the belief that name brands are better all the time, which just isn’t true.

“Brands exist for a reason, which is in part to help people distinguish poducts that really are higher quality,” Gentzkow says. “What firms do is exploit that to sell products in other contexts and the problem is that people can’t tell when brands are really better.”

Even if people know a generic contains the same ingredients — even if the package specifically says “compare to” the name brand equivalent — we still don’t believe they’re the same thing without a fairly deep base of professional knowledge. People especially are intimidated by purchases that involve a medical question, unless they’re in that profession themselves. It doesn’t even have to do with educational level overall, Gentzkow says. Registered nurses are more likely to buy store-brand medications than lawyers, even though lawyers have a lot more schooling under their belts.

“We’re looking at people who have a lot of information not only about the active ingredients but other information that’s relevant,” Gentzkow says. “I think the gap here is about more than just there are facts that people don’t know. It’s that making the correct decision requires quite a lot of information and sophistication.”

But this doesn’t mean you have to get a pharmacy degree or go to culinary school to avoid overpaying for name brands, Gentzkow says. There are ways you can train yourself to think like an expert when you’re weighing store- versus name-brand purchases.

“Ask yourself, how hard would it be for another company to make something that’s the same?” he says. “Where am I finding that the store brand stuff is just as good? Are there other places I might apply that same knowledge?”

We tend to learn which generic items work or taste as well as their branded counterparts by trial and error, so build on that, Gentzkow recommends. “People have a really hard time extrapolating knowledge from one context to another, but it’s really valuable to figure it out.”

TIME Careers & Workplace

Why ‘You’re Getting a Bonus’ Is Actually Horrible News

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Sounds good. Often isn't

So your boss just said, instead of a raise this year, you’ll be eligible for a bonus. Great, right?

Not so fast. Companies today are increasingly turning to bonuses instead of raises, and while it might seem like pretty much the same thing, there are some big potential drawbacks for workers.

According to HR consulting firm Aon Hewitt’s annual Salary Increase Survey, more than 90% of companies now have what’s called, in HR jargon, “variable pay,” a category that can include signing bonuses, awards for individual or team performance, profit-sharing and the like. Nearly 13% of companies’ payroll budget, on average, is going to variable pay this year. This is a significant increase from Aon Hewitt’s pre-recession data and the trend is expected not only to continue, but to grow larger.

In the meantime, companies are still doling out raises with a relative eyedropper; last year, the average was below three percent for white-collar professional workers — a little better than the puny 1.8% it hit in 2009, but not by much.

“Based on historical trends and based on the indicators that we see — both economic and HR indicators — we think the level of spending on salaries will continue to be flat for the foreseeable future, and the level of spending on variable pay will continue to rise,” says Ken Abosch, compensation, strategy and market development leader at Aon Hewitt.

While bonuses have always been a part of the pay structure for certain jobs, like those in sales, Abosch says this trend is across the board. “We’re seeing it in pretty much every sector, including higher education and not-for-profits,” he says. So if you haven’t had your raise replaced with a bonus yet, that could be coming.

For businesses, there are a few advantages to giving bonuses instead of raises in today’s lackluster recovery. The biggest is that it’s not a permanent commitment. They dole out the money once, and they only have to repeat it if certain performance benchmarks — benchmarks which can and do change regularly — are met. Since bonuses and similar performance incentives are often viewed by workers as a sort of add-on perk, they can also be used as a “carrot” to motivate workers, and they can give workers a perception that they’re more in control of how much they earn.

That perception isn’t really based in reality, though: Performance metrics often include company-wide targets. You might be the best help-desk associate or accountant in the building, but if somebody in the corner office makes a bad decision, the company’s bottom line could tank and you can kiss that bonus goodbye.

That’s only one of the problems that switching raises with bonuses has for workers. “It impacts pensions and retirements,” Abosch says. Certain benefits calculations are based on your salary, so even if you’re getting the money in the form of a bonus, it’s not counting towards these important ancillary calculations. And if you lose that job, your unemployment benefits are calculated based on — you guessed it — your salary.

That’s not all. If you’re looking to take out a mortgage, buy a car or obtain any other kind of financing, the lender is going to look at how much you make. Depending on their underwriting practices, bonuses may or may not get the same weight as a fixed salary. The result? You could wind up paying higher interest on your loan, or even be denied outright.

TIME Shopping

Why It’s Your Fault There’s Already Christmas Stuff in Stores

Richard Drury—Richard Drury

Exhausting? Yes. Going anywhere anytime soon? No

Everybody complains about seeing inflatable lawn Santa and Christmas ornaments stocked next to the candy corn and costumes in October or even earlier. Better get used to it, though. Plenty of research indicates that ‘Christmas creep’ shows no sign of slowing down—and stores are just delivering on what shoppers today want.

Consulting company the Hay Group finds that more than half of retailers surveyed say they’ll have kicked off their holiday promotions by this month (including almost 20% who said they started last month), up significantly from last year. That’s a lot of red and green mingling with Halloween orange and black.

“Shoppers can expect to start seeing holiday sales early this season, as retailers work to get customers in the door sooner,” the company says.

Both the Hay Group and the National Retail Federation are predicting healthy increases in holiday spending this year, and after a largely disappointing back-to-school shopping season, stores are scrambling to be the first ones getting a crack at your wallets.

If the NRF’s prediction of a 4.1% increase in holiday shopping this year is correct, it will be the first time in three years that holiday sales increase by more than 4%. “Consumers are in a much better place than they were this time last year, and the extra spending power could very well translate into solid holiday sales growth for retailers,” the group says.

The funny thing is, as much as we complain about holiday promotions pushing into ever-earlier parts of the calendar, retailers are just delivering what customers today seem to want. We might gripe, but we’re still buying holiday stuff as soon as it’s on shelves. The NRF found last year that 40% of shoppers started before Halloween, including nearly 20% who started in the month of September or earlier. The Omaha World-Herald says the Mall of America even sells plenty of holiday-related items over the summer.

“You’re going to see holiday promotions coming on maybe even prior to Halloween… with ‘Black Friday’ thrown in there repeatedly before Thanksgiving,” Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics, tells the newspaper.

TIME Careers & Workplace

3 Reasons Your Online Job Search Is Failing Miserably

If you’re looking for a job and depending on online tricks and tools to do the job, you might be waiting for longer than you expect before you hear, “You’re hired.” A pair of new surveys highlight the biggest mistakes and misconceptions job-seekers make when it comes to job-hunting online.

You use your smartphone instead of a computer. Jibe, a company that makes technology for job recruiters, finds that a full 20% of job applicants would give up on an online application if they couldn’t do it entirely on their phones. But unfortunately, it also finds that more than a quarter of big companies don’t have a single part of their hiring process set up to work well on a smartphone.

“Many passive job candidates, and especially the youngest members of the workforce, live a mobile-first or mobile-only existence. If you want to give yourself the best chance to land a job, relying on mobile may add significant risk,” says Joe Essenfeld, founder and CEO of Jibe. “Even though most job seekers expect mobile apply capabilities, enterprise systems are still working to catch up.”

You rely on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re seeking work, go to LinkedIn. A new study from social recruiting company Bullhorn Reach finds that only around 20% of recruiters use Facebook to find job candidates; about the same percentage use Twitter. LinkedIn is the overwhelming favorite, used by 97% of recruiters.

“Relying on just Twitter and Facebook without LinkedIn would be a mistake,” says Aravinda Rao Souza, Bullhorn’s senior marketing manager. “The real surprise is that Facebook isn’t more popular,” with recruiters, she says. “It really should be… Candidates love it because so many of them already essentially live on Facebook.” Rao says companies that use Facebook to find job candidates have a high degree of success, but until a majority of recruiters catch on and start using the social network’s broad reach and targeting abilities, you should probably keep looking on LinkedIn, too.

You give up too easily. Jibe’s research finds that nearly a quarter of candidates will give up on applying for any jobs at a company if they have a single bad experience with completing an online job application. If you’re serious about finding a new gig, this could amount to shooting yourself in the foot. “Job seekers should be cautiously optimistic because the technology is evolving quickly,” Essenfeld says.

Jibe also finds that more than half of job-seekers say they’d be deterred if an online application didn’t let them upload their resume — a problem that’s probably keeping an untold number of people from landing the jobs they want, according to Essenfeld. “Uploading a resume was the second highest challenge cited by job seekers in the survey,” he says. If you can’t upload your resume, call or email the company even if the job listing says not to, he suggests.

TIME Debt

More Lenders Are ‘Garnishing Wages’ To Get Paid Back

If you’ve fallen behind on credit-card, medical, or other debt, there’s a growing likelihood that the lenders will simply help themselves to the contents of your paycheck — or even your bank account — to get their money back.

You read that right. Wage garnishment — typically thought of as a tool for collecting unpaid child support or back taxes — is increasingly being wielded by lenders and collection agencies, and it’s hitting middle class and blue-collar workers the hardest.

“The impact is often humiliating and stressful for employees. It can result in decreased productivity and motivation that can be detrimental to the affected employee, workplace, and employer,” payroll giant ADP says in a report about garnishment conducted at the request of ProPublica.

According to a joint investigation by NPR and ProPublica based on the ADP data, roughly 4 million working Americans had their wages garnished to pay off a consumer debt last year. For those earning between $25,000 and $40,000, consumer debt was the main reason for garnishment. Employees of manufacturing companies are more likely to be hit by garnishments, as are residents of Midwestern states.

These aren’t small amounts, either. Although some states limit how much can be garnished, a creditor can take up to 25% of your paycheck in more than half the country. What’s even worse is that debtors whose pay is garnished are likely to wind up paying back far more than the original debt owed, because creditors are free to tack on penalty fees, hike the APR on the balance, add their own legal costs onto the balance.

One American profiled by NPR, who fell behind on credit-card payments after an extended period of joblessness, is paying off a balance of around $15,000, even though the original bill he owed was less than half that amount.

“Pay seizures appear to be rising fast in certain states. The economic downturn has produced a significant increase in the number of debtors – and creditors seem to be suing at higher levels,” ADP says.

The effects of garnishments on a person or a family’s financial stability are significant, the report found. Having your pay garnished to pay back an old debt can drag down your credit score, making it hard or even impossible to get a loan or open a bank account. If you have more than one garnishment on your pay, your job could even be at risk.

In a 2013 report, the National Consumer Law Center warned that this kind of aggressive action can push families off a financial cliff and create ripple effects that hurt the broader economy. “When debtors lose their jobs, the consequences fall not just on the debtors and their families, but also on landlords, local merchants, and other creditors that the debtor might have paid,” the group says.

Fighting a garnishment isn’t easy. Borrowers have to go to court. And consumer groups including the NCLC say that some unscrupulous debt collectors (who often “buy” the debt from the original lender) tend to “overlook” the requirement to send notices about required court appearances before garnishing paychecks. If the indebted person doesn’t show up in court, even if they never got the notification, a judgement can be entered against them, and they might have no idea until their paychecks start getting lighter.

Creditors can even reach into bank accounts in some cases. The NCLC recommends that the state laws that govern garnishment of bank account assets give people a $1,200 cushion that creditors can’t touch. (Right now, only three states — Massachusetts, New York and Wisconsin — do.)

Despite the hardship this places on families, experts say the trend towards seizing wages is a big part of debt collectors’ strategy. “The emphasis is now on creditor garnishments,” consultant Amy Bryant tells NPR.

 

TIME Saving and Spending

This Law Would Immediately Improve Your Credit Score

A high-ranking lawmaker is pushing for Congress to redraw the road map for how credit scores are calculated, with an eye toward giving a little more breathing room to people who have fallen on tough times financially.

California representative Maxine Waters, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, is introducing legislation that would modify the Fair Credit Reporting Act in several ways.

It would sharply reduce the amount of time negative information stays on your report. Right now, if you default on a loan, have a debt go into collections or similar, you’re stuck with that black mark for seven years. Waters’ proposed law would shave three years off that and wipe the slate clean after four years. The proposal also would “reverse” defaults on private student loans if the borrower makes nine on-time payments in a row.

“It probably is time to look at the seven-year reporting period and find out what the data really says,” says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at Credit.com. “The Fair Credit Reporting Act was passed in 1970 before credit scoring was as pervasive as it is today,” she points out. A penalty that might have seemed reasonable back then might be too punitive today now that credit scores play into everything from how much interest you pay on a credit card to whether or not you land a job. (Waters also wants to stop employers from using credit checks when screening applicants.)

Waters’ bill also would erase debts that are settled for less than the original balance due, including medical debts. Fair Isaac, the company behind the widely-used FICO score, also made some recent tweaks to its scoring formula, including a similar change that won’t penalize people for late payments if the debts have been paid off. The company also said it will give less weight to medical debt, following research conducted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which found that medical debt doesn’t automatically indicate lower creditworthiness.

Some credit experts are skeptical of the impact and warn of unintended consequences and higher costs to borrowers. “This will result in higher rates for everyone,” predicts Amber Stubbs, managing editor at CardRatings.com. “If [banks] are less able to accurately predict risk, they will proactively increase the cost of loans across the board.”

And John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com, writing in Business Insider, says that Waters’ bill places “unreasonable” demands on financial services providers.

Consumer advocates, though, are happy about the plan. “A lot of reform [is] needed,” Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center, tells the Washington Post.

“She’s obviously thought through the thorny issues,” says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action. “I commend Maxine for this proposal,” she says, although she acknowledges not all the proposed changes would be likely to make it into the final law. “It seems unlikely such a bill would pass in this House,” she says.

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