A paid parental leave policy that would help working parents afford time off to care for their newborns is gaining momentum in Congress as more Republicans rally around the idea that has long been a cause for Democrats.
On Tuesday, GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Joni Ernst of Iowa released details of a draft bill for discussion called the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment Act, or the CRADLE Act, that would allow parents to tap into money through the Social Security program early to pay for the time off. The parents could recoup that money by postponing their Social Security retirement benefits later in life.
Flanked by women expecting or holding babies and young children, the senators stressed that their draft was about helping families, not simply playing political catch-up on an issue with broad public support.
"The family is the fundamental unit of society upon which the success of any society is contingent. And for that reason, I have made it a point in my service in the United States Senate to make sure that we get family policy right," Lee said.
"Our policy should reflect the evolving needs of (the) workforce and reduce barriers that pose challenges to parents balancing families and work," said Ernst. "As a nation, we can do better for our families."
The budget-neutral proposal is the second to be unveiled in the new Congress — the first was introduced in February by Democrats — and Republicans are expected to introduce more. The White House has been a principal driver behind Republican interest in what is now the bipartisan issue of family leave. In particular, special adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump has been pushing the policy since the 2016 presidential campaign, and she renewed her efforts after the president mentioned it in his State of the Union address this year.
“It’s encouraging to see members on both sides of the aisle putting forward paid family leave proposals," Ivanka Trump said in February. "Twenty-five years after (the Federal and Medical Leave Act) was passed we finally have bipartisan agreement on the importance of paid leave for working parents. Now we are seeking to build consensus around policy that can garner enough votes to be passed into law.”
No one is predicting when a parental leave will pass, but if it did it would end the United States' distinction as the only industrialized country in the world without a nationwide paid family leave benefit for new parents. Six states have some type of paid family leave, and that trend, along with pressure from the White House, has forced the issue in Congress, experts said.
"It's the first time we are seeing serious proposals from the right, which to me is like a huge achievement," said Aparna Mathur, an economic policy scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and co-director of the AEI-Brookings working group on paid family leave. "It was not something we had imagined would happen even two years back."
The Ivanka effect
Nationwide surveys have shown broad support for paid family leave to help care for new babies or another family member. But there is less consensus on who should pay for it and how, which mirrors divides in Congress.
The Deseret News' 2016 American Family Survey found 54 percent of Americans support requiring employers to offer paid family leave. About a quarter wanted all employers to cover it, while another quarter wanted only larger employers to cover it. Twenty-one percent wanted government to pay for it. The single largest response to who should pay for it was "don’t know."
A more recent poll by the National Partnership for Women & Families found 8 in 10 voters (84 percent) support a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave policy that covers all people who work. The July 2018 survey showed 38 percent prefer employers and employees share the cost of providing the benefit, 21 percent support an employer-funded plan, 19 percent prefer government cover the costs and 3 percent like the idea of early withdrawals from Social Security.
Democrats have long supported paid family leave, and presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reintroduced her Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (the FAMILY Act) in February. All other Democratic presidential candidates are co-sponsors of the proposal, which would extend benefits beyond parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child to other circumstances that could require a person to take leave from work.
Republicans, who began throwing their support behind paid family leave during the 2016 presidential race, have narrowed their approach to just one aspect: paid parental leave for parents of new and adopted children. Ivanka Trump championed the idea during the GOP presidential convention.
"That's when I first started thinking about it," Lee said in an interview. "I thought, that's an usual thing to call for, especially from a Republican."
But Megan A. Sholar, author of "Getting Paid While Taking Time: The Women’s Movement and the Development of Paid Family Leave Policies in the United States," said there is a political calculus to the GOP getting behind paid family leave.
"Republicans may also be trying to close the yawning gender gap in the U.S. electorate, as women become increasingly more likely than men to vote for Democrats," she wrote in The Washington Post. "Paid family leave is often touted as a women’s issue, so Republicans may be trying to narrow the gap by tackling the issue, as Trump did in 2016."
In return for Ivanka Trump's help in getting an increased child tax credit into the 2017 tax reform bill, Lee said, he agreed to give paid parental leave a closer look.
He said his staff came across a proposal published by the Independent Women's Forum for a plan in which each parent could fund their leave by withdrawing money from Social Security. The money could be recovered by each parent deferring their withdrawal from Social Security when they retire.
For example, Lee estimated, a parent taking four weeks of parental leave would delay collecting Social Security by eight weeks.
"We're not sure it would have to be that long, but we think that would be enough to offset the impact it would have on the system long term," Lee said.
The women who joined Lee and Ernst for Tuesday's announcement were from the forum.
Lee's and Ernst's proposal would allow up to three months of parental leave. Both parents would be eligible, so they could stagger their leave. Lower income parents would receive a higher percentage of their monthly wages under the plan, and the benefit could supplement other local or employer benefits.
A similar plan was introduced last year by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. He, Lee and Ernst met with Ivanka Trump last month in the office of Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to discuss the GOP proposals on the table and how they would move forward.
A Republican-controlled Congress did approve tax credits for employers that offer paid family leave in the 2017 tax cut bill. But Ernst explained at the news conference Tuesday that the credits only affect parents who happen to work for those employers, while this new plan plan would be available to any parent that wants it. Federal labor statistics say 16 percent of the workforce has access to paid parental leave.
No easy task
Both Republicans and Democrats agree parental leave benefits both children and parents. Research shows improved infant mortality and overall health of children on several measures when parents take leave of work to care for newborns. Women who used at least 12 weeks of paid leave reported fewer depressive symptoms and improved physical and mental health, according to the Independent Women's Forum study.
But the common ground ends there.
Both plans introduced so far have nonstarters for lawmakers on the other side of the aisle. For instance, the funding mechanism in Gillibrand's bill is a mandatory payroll tax, while Republicans are committed to a budget-neutral funding approach that people can choose to use or not. Meanwhile, the Republican plan only deals with parental leave, while Democrats have embraced more comprehensive relief, including leave for personal health care and other family needs.
Mathur said one concern with the a plan involving Social Security is it uses an existing government program that is already in a precarious financial situation. Another concern is whether drawing from Social Security early could leave vulnerable, low-income wage earners with the difficult choice when they reach retirement age of delaying retirement or receiving a smaller benefit.
"Anyone can choose whether or not to participate in the program," Lee said. "This doesn't compel anyone to take it." But he and Ernst acknowledged there are tradeoffs, but the chance to spend time with a new child is crucial, particularly for low-income parents who may not be working for an employer that offers paid parental leave.
While the program is billed as budget-neutral in the long term, the short-term costs are estimated at $7 billion to $8 billion. That's one reason Ernst and Lee are circulating a draft bill to gather input from lawmakers and the administration to iron out the fiscal impact and other issues. Lee said there are "several Democrats" who he hopes will sign on as co-sponsors, although he did not name them Tuesday.
The bipartisan AEI-Brookings group said in its 2017 report that they, too, confronted obstacles that forced them to compromise and recommend an employee payroll tax that would fund up to eight weeks of paid time off while receiving 70 percent of wages up to $600 a week.
"None of us found this compromise entirely to our liking," the report said. "But in these partisan times, we felt an obligation to work toward a compromise that all of us could support to some extent. We believed this was better than doing nothing when the U.S. is the only developed nation without a national paid leave policy."