Work-Family Balance: An Opening for the GOP
Recently, Senator Marco Rubio became the first Republican presidential candidate to endorse paid leave. This underreported announcement is a significant shift in the politics of American family policy.
The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, requires employers to offer twelve weeks of time off. But as Rubio pointed out, when it is unpaid, many workers don't take it.
Democrats traditionally argue that government should mandate paid leave or operate a social-insurance program to pay for it. They frequently note that the U.S. is one of the few nations that don't require paid leave.
Republicans have traditionally countered with concerns about government intrusion in private labor markets, the impact of mandates on jobs, and the impact of new taxes on growth. Republicans have traditionally looked to address the issue by extending to private-sector workers an option that many public-sector employees have: compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay.
For the past two decades there has been stalemate in Congress. Democrats propose paid leave. Republicans counter with compensatory time.
Until now. Senator Rubio's proposal is not brand new. It is based on legislation Sens. Deb Fischer and Angus King introduced in the previous Congress. What is new is a major Republican candidate touting a plan to expand the availability of paid leave. In 1988, George H.W. Bush talked about child care. In 2008, Senator McCain included workplace flexibility. Yet no candidate has spoken so positively about paid leave. Even the phrase used to be toxic within the GOP caucus. Despite the efforts of a number of members of Congress and some business groups, most Republicans have been reluctant to innovate publicly in this policy area. They needed a high-profile conservative to take the plunge.
Now Rubio has suggested public dollars, in the form of a tax credit, be used to expand the availability of paid leave. He suggests paid leave not only for family reasons, like maternity leave, but also for medical reasons, which has faced more business concerns.
Senator Rubio deserves credit for addressing the issue. Significantly, Rubio introduced his proposal during a speech to the Values Voters Summit, a social-conservative gathering. Introducing his proposal before this group shows Rubio's intent to frame his plan as pro-family. He did not speak of paid leave as a women's issue, but spoke personally as a dad who has had to miss his kids' activities as he tries to balance work and family. He did so months before the first primary, showing confidence that work-family balance is not just a general-election issue.
Polls show a majority of Americans favor some sort of paid leave. Given the current gender gap of support between the parties and the prospect of Republicans facing Hillary Clinton, who would make history as the first female president and speaks frequently about work-family policy, Republicans needed a new response to the paid-leave question.
Rubio has opened the door for more Republicans to think creatively in the work-family policy space. It will be interesting to see what new ideas come next.
David Gray is a senior fellow at New America and the author of Practicing Balance.