House Democrats have various options for how they wish to approach their legislative agenda. In addition to their oversight agenda, they can pass laws they believe in (like strong gun control laws), which the Republican Senate will reject; pass very mild bills, which their constituencies will reject, or pass bold bipartisan legislation that has an outside chance of passing.
The third approach is the most ambitious and arguably rewarding. Democrats can take a page from Dwight Eisenhower for how to proceed. "Whenever I run into a problem I can't solve, I always make it bigger," the two-term U.S. president once proclaimed, making the point that sometimes the perspective you take on a problem is both too narrow and too limited.
The Eisenhower principle says that trying to solve the work-family balance problem by addressing the first 12 weeks or even 12 months of an infant's life conceptualizes the problem in terms that are both too narrow and too limited. Note the strong paid parental leave bill that keeps dying in Congress. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, provides 12 weeks of leave for new parents or individuals who need to take care of a child or sick relative, it doesn’t require pay, as its precursor, the Family Medical Leave and Insurance Act, was meant to.
That bill was originally introduced in 1984 by former Rep. Pat Schroeder and former Sen. Chris Dodd, who spent nine years pushing its passage only to see the money sucked out of it during the legislative struggle, ending up with the FMLA we have today. We remain the only industrialized country in the world without even a brief paid leave program, and many countries provide six months to a year of paid leave, at anywhere from half wage replacement to full wage replacement.
To apply the Eisenhower principle we should think bigger and recognize that the work-life balance issue is as much a problem in years two, three, four and five for hard-working young families as it is during the first few months or year of a child's life. The work-family balance problem needs a D-Day mentality: We should therefore aim for funding for one parent in a marriage — man and woman, man and man, woman and woman — in policy proposals to stay home and care for the child in years two through five. This funding could be a tax credit for a stay at home parent. Parents could even alternate different years or parts of the same year.
This funding, moreover, would be complemented by similar new funding for child care, namely for those parents who chose not to have a parent at home since they preferred or needed to have both parents in the workforce.
The program would cost, according to my calculations, roughly $125 billion a year or $1.25 trillion over the course of 10 years. There are of course many significant details to work out concerning how to generate this funding, yet the reality is that $125 billion a year is not a huge amount of money out of a budget that exceeds $4 trillion a year. If we needed to finance a war, even one we were ambivalent about, we could raise that money in an instant.
The chief obstacles are political, not economic; we need collective will in Washington to get this done.
House Democrats can take the lead with an ambitious bill that addresses this major cultural conflict in our society. Our family infrastructure is in just as much need of repair as our transportation infrastructure. But while working on a transportation infrastructure bill is a no-brainer, working on a family infrastructure bill would take courage.
Passing an ambitious family policy would help both Democrats and Republicans in Congress as well the president — so no one could use it to their strategic advantage. And wouldn't that be amazing: Congress and the president passing a major law because it was good for the American people and not because it gave any one of them leverage?
Dave Anderson ran for Congress in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland's 8th District and is Editor of Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework (Springer, 2014). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.