The GOP is finally coming around to the idea of paid maternity and paternity leave. But instead of proposing policies that would provide income for parents who take time off with a baby ― like all other industrialized nations do ― they’re asking Americans to fund parental leave out of their own retirement savings.
On Wednesday, Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida introduced the New Parents Act, which would give mothers and fathers the option of using their future Social Security income to fund a paid leave of up to three months after the arrival of a child by birth or adoption. Rubio proposed a similar plan last year.
The attention to paid leave is part of the GOP’s efforts to win back women voters, who abandoned them in droves in the 2018 election. But the bills proposed so far would actually hurt women, who earn less over their lifetimes and already receive smaller Social Security payments. With this plan in place, retirement income for many women would shrink even more.
The bill also excludes the vast majority of Americans who need paid family leave: those who take time off to handle a serious illness or care for a loved one. Seventy-five percent of people who take unpaid leave, as permitted under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, use that time to care for someone other than a new child. And women do the majority of this kind of care work; many are tending to children and aging parents at the same time.
“Republicans are looking 2020 in the eye and trying to figure out how they’re gonna win women voters, but the reality is women aren’t just providing care to new babies,” said Brianna Cayo Cotter, chief of staff at PL+US, a group that advocates for family leave. “They’re doing twice the amount of unpaid care in this country. Period.”
The idea of using Social Security money to fund paid leave has been widely criticized. A parent who did this could see a lifetime reduction in benefits of between 3 and 10 percent, according to an analysis released last year by the Urban Institute.
The idea itself originates with the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group linked to the Koch brothers that has been clear about its desire to change thinking on Social Security. The forum’s real aim is to destabilize and break open the so-called lockbox on Social Security benefits, said Lisa Graves, the co-director of Documented, a watchdog group that investigates corporate influence on American democracy. “It’s an outlandish scheme,” said Graves, who has studied the Independent Women’s Forum closely.
Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) also signed on to the Romney-Rubio bill.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Rubio pushed back on criticism of the measure. “I don’t understand the argument that this gives parents a bad option,” he said. “Right now they have no options.” He emphasized that parents don’t have to take up this offer.
The Florida senator also noted how far the GOP has come in supporting any kind of family leave at all. “We now have at least three separate groups working on paid family leave in the Republican Party,” he said. “This was an issue that wasn’t discussed five years ago in the GOP.”
Rubio even compared the new bill to an effort, floated during the George W. Bush administration, that would have allowed Americans to invest their Social Security money in the stock market ― part of a plan to privatize retirement accounts. He suggested that anyone who backed those measures shouldn’t have a problem with his bill. “I find it sort of ironic that someone would support taking that money and investing it in the stock market but not invest it in your children,” he said.
Rubio did not mention that the stock market plan was widely unpopular and that Bush’s failure to privatize Social Security was his first big political defeat.
At the same press conference, Romney touted the new plan as a solid conservative idea that wouldn’t add to the national debt and was rooted in the idea of “personal responsibility.”
Earlier this month, Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) floated a nearly identical proposal, called the Cradle Act. And Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) is reportedly weighing a similar piece of legislation.
The Trump administration is also pushing for some kind of paid leave and Rep. Wagner mentioned the White House’s support at Wednesday’s press conference.
“Ivanka Trump has been a leader on this issue,” a spokesperson from Rubio’s office told HuffPost on Wednesday.
The new bill includes no job protections for parents who take time off ― so it’s not clear whether an employer could stop a worker who isn’t protected by the FMLA from taking parental leave.