Our Perpetual Paid Leave Dilemma

Paid family leave, a project that Ivanka Trump has been working on quietly for the last year and a half, enjoyed a moment in the spotlight on Wednesday in a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee that deals with family policy.

The hearing was a long overdue development in the eyes of the first daughter and White House adviser. Trump wafted through the double doors just in time for subcommittee chairman and Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy to praise her as “a fervent advocate for American families.”

Notably absent from Ivanka’s side, however, was Maggie Cordish, Trump’s copilot on paid leave policy and also her oldest friend. Cordish resigned from the White House late last month, a move seen by many as a symptom of stalled progress on the issue: More than a year ago, Cordish came hopeful and curious to the American Enterprise Institute’s unveiling of its’ ideal bipartisan plan. It was, in short, a perfect example of the sort of proposal that costs too much for Republicans’ comfort and promises too little to please Democrats.

The stalemate perpetuates. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, expressed support for a paid-leave plan that could actually pass a Republican-controlled Congress: “I want to craft paid leave policy that can not only attract consensus, but is viable for families, employers and the economy.” At that a baby, one of two in the hearing room, mewled as if on cue.

The plan Ernst said she and Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio are working on hasn’t actually been published yet. Their idea, to let parents voluntarily pull funds from their Social Security payments for a personal paid leave pool, won conservative backing early this year, including the reported cooperation of Ivanka Trump. It’s been almost a year and half, after all, since Trump first started meeting with lawmakers about moving forward on the paid family leave legislation she and her father promised from the campaign trail.

But it was Kirsten Gillibrand—the New York senator who made working mothers a cornerstone of her national profile when she took over Hillary Clinton’s seat in 2009—who took center stage at Wednesday’s hearing, holding forth on a popular subject where she’s long been a leading voice.

Gillibrand, whose national ambitions are no secret, held firm in her opposition to anything less than the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, known as the FAMILY Act: It would proved for 12 weeks of paid leave, for new parents and for personal or family illness, through Social Security and tax increases on employers and workers alike. “It would cost about as much as a cup of coffee a week,” she pitched—and applies, she said, to everyone. “Here’s the truth: At some point every person here is going to have to take some time off to meet or care for a family member.” Whereas, a Social Security plan like the one Ernst had just finished selling as a conservative alternative—“a solution that doesn’t make our economy worse off”—would create a “false choice” hourly wage workers can’t afford to make and it would be available chiefly to new parents.

But for Democrats, the FAMILY Act is the standard against which every more moderate—i.e., more palatable to Republicans—proposal comes up short. First proposed in 2013, it’s never had a conservative cosponsor and centrist Democrats like Tim Kaine and Joe Manchin have yet to sign on. But there’s little likelihood Democrats would warm to a budget-neutral paid parental leave bill, like Rubio, Lee and Ernst’s forthcoming Social Security plan—especially while folks on the left see themselves riding the swell of a coming blue wave.

The Social Security proposal surfaced early and often in senators’ remarks. “Preserving the retirement benefits promised to Americans is paramount,” said Senator Cassidy with added emphasis. Any proposal that borrows from Social Security “must also strengthen” the program, he added. Ohio senator Sherrod Brown reiterated his support for the FAMILY Act, and condemned the proposal to let parents tap into their retirement funds. “Unfortunately, the approach some of our colleagues are currently proposing amounts to cutting Social Security for the workers who need it most,” he warned. “The bedrock of our social safety net is no place to start.”

Or it might be just the place: If national trends reflect the wage increases that followed paid leave provisions in California, AEI’s Andrew Biggs pointed out, parents’ post-leave Social Security savings would balance out what they’d borrowed already for paid leave. “There’s nothing bipartisan about privatizing Social Security,” Senator Brown growled in his questions to Biggs, adding that, “By any fair analysis the Ernst-Rubio proposal is a kind of privatization.” Biggs called the critique, “a mistake,” adding that an added payroll tax would take more money from working families.

“We’re not interested in privatizing,” Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia later clarified in a friendly sidebar to Brown. Isakson and Nevada senator Mike Enzi both expressed concern for the costs a federal mandate like the FAMILY Act would force on small businesses. Enzi, for his part, thanked the panelists for an education on the issue, allowed that something needs to be done, and said, “I don’t think either plan we’ve heard today is the solution.”

Otherwise, arguments fell cleanly along party lines. “Any plan that doesn’t include medical leave would exclude 75 percent of leave takers,” said Vicki Schabo, a panelist speaking in support of the FAMILY Act. Last summer, when I asked her about the latest parental leave proposal, Gillibrand replied with the same statistic.

Rejecting new ideas for a persistent problem technically doesn’t help working families either. “On the Left, there’s a strong reluctance to separate paid parental leave from family and medical leave,” noted prominent paid-leave proponent and political consultant Abby McCloskey in an email to TWS before the hearing.

She’d anticipated today’s stalemate: “I agree that work should be done on family and medical leave, but there’s much more momentum on parental leave and a strong fact base to support it,” McCloskey added, pointing to a body of research that supports the need for paid parental leave—including the correlation between decreased neonatal mortality and additional weeks’ paid leave.

The idea for today’s discussions, Senator Cassidy told us at the outset, was to “build upon these efforts”—to build on the Trump tax plan’s two pro-family provisions, that is. According to Pew polling carried out last year, 85 percent of Americans favor a national paid parental leave program, which the U.S. is alone among developed nations in lacking.

“We need a proposal that can pass, and not just feel good for the moment,” Senator Cassidy concluded at the hearing’s close. And yet, Congress seems no nearer a paid leave plan that could please both sides than they were when Ivanka Trump held her first bipartisan meeting early in her father’s presidency.

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