OPINION: Paid parental leave in the CRADLE Act is something both parties can support

By Michael McHugh,
Opinion Contributor for WashingtonExaminer.com

On Tuesday, Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment Act, legislation that would for the first time provide universal access for all workers to paid parental leave. 

The concept of the CRADLE Act is sound: Allow new parents the option of borrowing from their Social Security safety net which they have already paid into. Parents who choose to take cash payments now to help with the costs of a new addition to their family and taking time off work will simply pay it back later by delaying their retirement for a few weeks. It doesn’t cost the government anything, it isn’t a new entitlement, and it gives families another valuable option in these most precious weeks of a child’s life.

If there is one area where Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree, it is on supporting new parents and young families. There are existing proposals from the Left and Right, but politics is the art of the possible, and this concept deserves an open-minded review on its merits. Congress should seriously consider this bill before the 2020 presidential campaign is in full swing and bipartisan legislating grinds to a crawl.

Providing universal, paid, parental leave has been a policy goal of the current administration from the campaign days, and I can attest the White House takes this issue very seriously. During the presidential transition, we spent considerable time and effort with colleagues representing several departments of government, reviewing multiple avenues to provide such a benefit. Some options would have utilized the existing unemployment insurance program, and others would have created a new entitlement or added another directive for employers, but none of the options at the time were as clean and common sense as the new proposal introduced by Ernst and Lee this week.

First, it is universal. Unlike the current patchwork of confusing state and local mandates on employers or individuals, this is one program for the entire country. Second, it doesn’t change anything employers are already doing, anywhere, and it doesn’t touch the Family and Medical Leave Act. Existing generous, employer-sponsored programs will continue apace, as they should in this tight labor market, and because it’s the right thing to do. Third, it’s optional. Suppose your employer’s paid leave plan is ample for your family’s needs; if you don’t need more financial help, then for you, nothing changes. But if your circumstances are such that financial assistance now allowing you to take time off work would be a blessing, then you can have it.

Some have said this idea would be a raid on Social Security, but that simply isn’t true. The CRADLE Act legislation is revenue-neutral over time. At the end of the day, it won’t cost the trust fund a dime — the lock box is intact. This bill is a testament to the strength of and public faith in Social Security. I believe in a strong safety net, which Social Security undoubtedly provides for retirees and those without wage income or those who are no longer able to make a living. Families early in their careers and at the beginning of their income arch are also vulnerable.

Young workers shouldn’t be forced to choose between spending irreplaceable time with their newborns or recently adopted children and making rent, just as seniors shouldn’t be forced to choose between medicines they need and putting food on the table. This program simply allows young families the option of cash support now in exchange for retiring a few weeks later after they have most likely achieved a higher level of financial security. It just makes sense.

I understand this bill or similar proposals will be the topic of a Senate hearing in the coming weeks. I encourage senators to cast aside partisan leanings and give this legislation a fair evaluation. I’ll be the first to admit this may not be the perfect solution for universal parental paid leave, and the patchwork of state and local programs should eventually be addressed. But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and the CRADLE Act is good.

Michael McHugh served as chief of staff for tax reform on the Presidential Transition Team, and was previously a tax aid to a member of the Senate Finance Committee. He is a partner at Urban Swirski & Associates. The views expressed herein are purely his own, and are not reflective the administration, his firm, or anyone else.