This morning I hauled myself out of bed early to go down to the American Enterprise Institute and listen to Bill Cassidy discuss the outlines of his plan for paid parental leave. The dervishes at AEI already uploaded the video, so you can take a look for yourself, if you can stand to listen to politicians speak for more than 30 seconds at a time. Bonus: if you hear someone guffawing off-screen a few minutes in, that’s me laughing at the idea anyone is going to fall for his schtick.
The problem with existing Republican paid leave plans
I’ve written at length about this before, so won’t belabor the point here, but the existing Republican proposals for a national paid leave program are based on forcing new parents to choose between the financial support they need to take time off work and the financial support they need to retire with dignity. It’s a cruel choice to force anyone to make: do you turn down paid parental leave and return to work a few days or weeks after giving birth or adopting a child, or do you accept paid parental leave and suffer from a permanently lower income in retirement?
Cassidy’s plan is designed to become as unpopular as possible as quickly as possible
If you watch past Cassidy’s Hee Haw routine with Aparna Mathur (who has also graced these digital pages before), you can enjoy the much more interesting follow-up discussion between several panelists from several points on the political spectrum. The panelists over-generously described Cassidy’s plan as a work in progress, the specifics of which they didn’t dare speculate about. This is incorrect: a carefully trained ear allows you to clearly identify the core tenants of Cassidy’s plan. Since I have such an ear, I can tell you: folks, it’s not great.
The first question any paid leave plan has to answer is, who is the beneficiary of the program? This might sound like a weird question, but the answer matters a great deal. In traditional paid leave programs, the beneficiaries are thought to be the workers. This allows you to apply the same logic across the board: workers are entitled to a certain number of days or weeks of paid (or in the United States, unpaid) leave to deal with a serious illness, to care for a relative, or to bond with a new child. Cassidy’s plan answers the question differently: the baby is the beneficiary of the program. Why does this matter? Because it means his plan provides paid parental leave exclusively to one parent. Cassidy is a homophobe, but not an idiot, so he allows that “under some circumstances” a child’s father could take the leave instead, but it’s clear despite his hemming and hawing that his plan will only cover one parent. This is not parental leave, it’s maternity leave, and there’s a reason virtually every other social democracy has abandoned it in favor of parental leave: it reinforces gender stereotypes in the home, it penalizes the employers of women and subsidizes the employers of men, and at the most basic level it keeps fathers apart from their children during a critical early bonding period.
The second question is, who is eligible for the program? Is the program universal, or is the program exclusively for those with earned income? How recent must the earned income be? Is the triggering event the birth of a child, or is the triggering event leaving work to care for a newborn child? Are you still eligible if you continue to work while caring for your child? This question has been answered in a variety of ways in a variety of contexts, and I have made clear to the relevant organs that it’s one of the objections I have to the most important Democratic proposal for paid family leave: I would prefer a universal allowance detached from work history, rather than a benefit exclusively for those with work histories and tied to their earnings record. But Cassidy’s plan goes the other direction: only mothers making less than $70,000 a year will be eligible for his benefit. My readers are no dummies, so they’re already asking: how will income be measured? Is it based on an individual earning record, a joint earning record, or on tax returns? Can you game the system by having children at particular times of year before taxes are filed? Can you game the system by getting married — or by getting divorced? The issue is not that these are unanswerable questions. The issue is that people should not have to ask them!
Having spent half an hour in a room with him, I can confirm that Bill Cassidy is a dumbass. But however little firepower he’s working with under the hood, I absolutely do not believe any of this is accidental. This plan is designed, top to bottom, to generate as much animosity and antagonism towards the welfare state as possible, at the lowest possible cost. If a paid maternity leave plan like this were passed, it would be used as a cudgel by employers against workers (“if I give you a raise you won’t be eligible for maternity leave”), workers against workers (“can you believe our janitors get paid maternity leave and we don’t?”), and fathers against mothers (“really you can’t afford to keep working since you’re entitled to maternity leave”).
Conclusion: this plan won’t pass, but that doesn’t let Republicans off the hook
There is one realistic plan for comprehensive paid family and medical leave on offer: the FAMILY Act. That’s not to say it’s perfect. I think the benefit should be fixed, universal, and unlinked from earnings history. But I’ve lost that fight, and the fact is, if you want a near-universal benefit that includes paid medical leave, caregiving leave, and parental leave, financed with a small payroll tax, you have to support the FAMILY Act, because it’s the only game in town.
None of the Republican efforts to destroy retirement security and worker solidarity will pass, but they weren’t written to pass. They were written to serve as vehicles for Republicans to say that they, too, care about providing the paid time off American workers desperately need. But it’s just not true. If they did, there would be 100 Senate votes for the FAMILY Act. Instead, there are 47 votes in favor of paid family and medical leave, and 53 votes against it.
You know what to do.