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Why the GOP's paid-family-leave plan is not what it appears to be

The good news is, Republicans have paid-family-leave plan. The bad news is, the plan is not what it appears to be.
A young girl grasps the hand of her newborn daughter. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/The Washington Post/Getty)
A young girl grasps the hand of her newborn daughter.

Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), two of the most conservative members of the Senate, sat down for an interview with CBS News this week to tout their paid-family-leave plan, called the "Cradle Act." Asked why the United States is so far behind the rest of the world on this issue, Ernst didn't hesitate.

"We've decided now is the time to step up and really do something about this," the Iowa Republican said. "We think it's time to catch up with other countries."

That may sound encouraging, but there's less here than meets the eye.

The GOP duo promoted their proposal with a new op-ed in the Washington Post, touting the virtues of paid family leave "without burdening either employers or taxpayers."

Our proposal, the Cradle Act, would allow both natural and adoptive parents to receive one, two or three months of paid leave benefits. A few decades down the road, those parents would then "pay" for the benefit themselves by delaying their own retirement for two, four or six months.To choose the paid parental leave option, parents would first have to notify the Social Security Administration of their plan to take paid leave before the expected birth or adoption. Then, after parents applied for their baby's Social Security number, payments would begin in two weeks.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because the Ernst/Lee plan is very similar to the "Economic Security for New Parents Act" unveiled by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), which we discussed last year.

In practice, both suffer from the same fundamental flaw: the plans are less of a benefit and more of a loan, from you to you.

In nearly every advanced democracy on the planet, new parents receive paid family leave as a benefit of citizenship, like health care, police protection, and public libraries. Funding mechanisms vary, but the programs tend to be financed through tax dollars, government mandates on private industry, or some combination therein.

Under the Republican vision in the United States, families should have similar benefits, just so long as they pay for it themselves by sacrificing future Social Security benefits.

In this model, the "pay" portion of paid family leave is money you're supposed to receive when you retire. In other words, Ernst and Lee want to allow you to borrow against yourself. If enacted, the proposal empowers Younger You to spend time with your family's new addition by getting money from Older You.

Perhaps some folks are reading this and thinking, "The GOP plan is better than nothing." In a very literal sense, that might be true. But it's certainly not better than the progressive proposals on the same issue, and sure as heck isn't, as Joni Ernst put it, the kind of proposal that will help the United States "catch up with other countries."