The Next Issue in Family-Focused Public Policy

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice speaks at a press conference on January 25, 2023. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Most conversations about family-related public policy focus on the 1997-era Child Tax Credit (CTC), a rebate for tax-filers based on the number of children they have. But a bipartisan working group in the House is beginning to coalesce around something new—sort of. 

Led by Oklahoma Republican Stephanie Bice and Pennsylvania Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, the six-member group is intent on crafting a national program of paid family leave. It would provide funds to pay working parents for a set number of weeks following the birth of a child—something many employers choose to do but is far from universal. Such a policy could be less expensive and potentially more popular than expanding the CTC to $3,600/year: According to a recent poll, while 67 percent of voters support six weeks of federal paid leave for new mothers, only 49 percent support a CTC benefit of $3,600/year or more.

Proponents also say parental leave—and especially maternity leave—could solve a more specific problem by making it easier for parents to spend time with a newborn immediately after birth, which has been shown to improve child and maternal health outcomes. (A 2020 policy brief from the Institute for Family Studies argues that while there may be other benefits to paid parental leave—including stabler marriages and closer connection to employment for parents—policymakers should keep child and maternal health front of mind since that’s where the evidence is strongest.)

Paid leave has been talked about in D.C. for years by both parties at separate times, with scant agreement over how to structure or pay for a program. But Bice and Houlahan think starting with a “clean slate” and approaching the issue in a bipartisan manner could provide enough momentum to get something done.

Their shared interest in the issue stems from their time on the House Armed Services Committee last Congress, where they worked together on paid leave for military personnel. After a Democratic-only effort at a federal paid leave program stalled last year, Houlahan’s office reached out to the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and found that Bice was also interested in a broader paid family leave effort. They then recruited four other members—Democrats Colin Allred and Haley Stevens and Republicans Julia Letlow and Mariannette Miller-Meeks—and got to work.

The group’s ultimate goal is to draft bipartisan legislation that can pass both chambers of Congress. To that end, its members are meeting at least once a month—and their staff are in communication on a daily basis.

“I haven’t seen this level of intellectual rigor and exploration from members of Congress on two sides of the aisle on almost any issue,” said Adrienne Schweer, a former Senate and Pentagon staffer and fellow at BPC who has worked with the group.

In February, the group met with some of the members and staff who were involved in negotiating the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid job protection for family and medical leave—30 years ago. In March, they met with representatives from six of the 11 states with paid family leave laws to learn more about how those laws are funded and implemented. Last week, they sent a letter to both parties’ leadership asking for support. And on Tuesday, they met with leaders in the insurance industry.

They’ll need all the information they can get: While crafting their proposal, members of the group will need to decide who would be eligible, how many weeks of leave to pay for, how much money to provide leave-claimers during those weeks, how to pay for the program, and how the government should administer it.

For example, the Democratic-only FAMILY Act—which was cut from the reconciliation package the party passed last year—would have provided paid benefits for multiple types of leave, including family caregiving and personal medical leave, but it wouldn’t have addressed job protections for those not covered by FMLA, meaning beneficiaries could theoretically collect the equivalent of two-thirds of their typical wages for 12 weeks before losing their jobs. In contrast, a working group of policy analysts convened by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution in 2017 recommended job-protected benefits of 70 percent of wages for up to eight weeks—but only for parental leave. 

Administration is another question: While the FAMILY Act would have created a new office to administer the program, states have approached the issue in a variety of ways: New Hampshire even contracts with MetLife, a private insurance company.

As with any social spending, funding for a paid leave program—which would cost tens of billions of dollars each year—could become a third rail, with Democrats resistant to spending cuts and Republicans opposed to tax increases for new social spending. But “in terms of the federal budget, this is not a big lift,” policy consultant and former GOP Senate staffer Abby McCloskey argued: A program along the lines of the AEI/Brookings proposal (about $13 billion per year) would cost less than 1 percent of what the government spends on Social Security annually (about $1 trillion).

When it comes to paid maternity leave, the United States is an outlier among developed countries. And almost half of American workers are ineligible for FMLA because they don’t work enough hours, haven’t been working for their employer long enough, or their employer is too small to qualify.

“Traditionally, we’ve had much less regulation on our labor markets and companies, which is in part why the U.S. economy has grown and flourished at the rate it has,” McCloskey said.

But that dynamism isn’t cost-free. Although many American companies provide paid time off, McCloskey said she remains “unconvinced that a mother and father’s ability to bond with their infants should be hinged on the benevolence of the company they work for.” 

“We need an extra level of protection there for the sake of the child,” she added.

Members of both parties increasingly agree. Although paid leave has traditionally been a Democratic issue, that began to change in 2016, when Donald Trump, at the behest of his daughter Ivanka, became the first Republican candidate to roll out a paid leave plan—versions of which were included in each of his administration’s four budget proposals.

Republicans on the Hill took notice. Sens. Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Joni Ernst led efforts to allow workers to pay for parental leave by delaying or cutting into future Social Security benefits. Sens. Bill Cassidy and Kyrsten Sinema introduced a bipartisan bill that would allow parents to claim some of their CTC money early when a child is born. And Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer’s Strong Families Act, which offers a tax credit to employers that offer paid family leave to their employees, actually became law as a bipartisan amendment to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Republicans’ 2017 budget reconciliation package.

An emergency program of paid sick leave and family leave was included in a March 2020 COVID relief bill, but it expired at the end of that year. Meanwhile, Democrats’ dream of passing paid leave on their own died when the FAMILY Act—which would have been funded with payroll taxes—was cut from what became the Inflation Reduction Act.

Now, in a divided Congress, both parties are more interested in coming to the table. 

“There’s a real potential here,” McCloskey said. “Even for a country that prefers to keep a tax base low and regulatory burden light, it’s something that can be done in a pretty manageable way.”

Comments (53)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More