Due to the current state of political affairs, one could be forgiven for forgetting that the legislative branch is, in fact, sometimes capable of legislating. But Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, hope to remedy this by introducing the first bipartisan bill for a federal program that would support paid parental leave.
Under their plan, new parents would have the option of taking an advance of up to $5,000 against their future child tax credits after the arrival of a new child in return for partially reduced child tax credits in future years to offset the cost. Their proposal would not dictate how parents use the advance — parents could, for example, use it to cover medical expenses, if those costs are more pressing — and it would not affect the child tax credits of parents who choose not to participate.
This bipartisan plan is a pragmatic approach to supporting parental leave that conservatives can get behind. As Cassidy explained, “We’ve created a program which does not raise taxes, does not increase the deficit, [and] has no mandates.” Rather, the plan would support new parents simply by adding a little flexibility to a preexisting government policy (child tax credits) so that it better accommodates their needs.
The plan is not perfect. Unlike a similar conservative proposal to run parental leave through Social Security, which Andrew Biggs and I introduced in 2018, the Cassidy-Sinema plan is not completely budget-neutral. For example, parents who receive the full $5,000 advance would have their child tax credit reduced by $500 (from $2,000 to $1,500) for the next 10 years. Due to inflation, they will repay slightly less than they receive.
But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, and the advantages of the plan are well worth its costs. To start, supporting parental leave is profoundly pro-family. A study of the Family and Medical Leave Act in the United States, which entitles certain workers to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year, suggests that maternity leave decreases infant mortality by approximately 10%, which is consistent with international trends concerning infant mortality and maternity leave.
Additionally, if passed, the Cassidy-Sinema plan could knock the wind out of the sails of liberal efforts to pass more expansive legislation creating a new paid leave entitlement funded by an increased payroll tax on all workers, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act. Why push payroll taxes even higher when existing legislation already provides the needed support? And good luck convincing millennials who dutifully repay their advance under the Cassidy-Sinema plan to later agree to higher payroll taxes so Generation Z can collect their benefits for “free.”
Perhaps this is why liberals have already launched an offense against the plan. Gillibrand tweeted that it “isn’t paid leave” but is instead a “proposal that would force working families to borrow from their own futures.”
With all due respect, this isn’t paid leave. It's another proposal that would force working families to borrow from their own futures. Americans deserve a real national paid leave program for the full range of caregiving needs. That’s the #FAMILYAct—the best plan to get behind. https://t.co/GeX7fCVUDT
— Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (@gillibrandny) July 30, 2019
The National Partnership for Women and Families declared that “new parents should not have to forfeit their [child tax credits] to be able to welcome a new child.” In other words, liberals believe parents should not be allowed to choose to receive paid leave benefits in return for higher taxes because they should all be forced to pay higher taxes.
The liberal criticism leads to the final reason conservatives should support the Cassidy-Sinema plan: politics. Nearly 75% of people support a federal paid leave policy, including 6 out of 10 Republicans and 7 out of 10 independents. The plan therefore puts Democrats in the awkward position of either abandoning the liberal position and giving Republicans a legislative victory or opposing popular legislation that would help working families in an election year.
Republicans thrive upon a pro-family and low-tax platform, and the Cassidy-Sinema plan checks both of these boxes. During a time when there is little good news coming out of Washington, this bipartisan effort should give conservatives a welcome reason for cheer.