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Four Weeks of Paid Family Leave Is an Insult

Four weeks of paid leave is a slap in the face to everyone who voted for this party.

Flickr/ DadBlunders

As congressional Democrats stumble towards the finish line on the hollow shell of their reconciliation plan, the left is being prepped for orders to hold its nose and graciously take what it can get on a multitude of issues that Democrats have sworn for years they’d solve as soon as they got back into power.

Take paid leave as one example. If parental leave stays in the bill—and that’s a huge ‘if’—it’s likely to be whittled down from 12 weeks to four weeks, as President Joe Biden said during a CNN town hall last week. The reason for that, according to multiple reports Monday, was Sen. Joe Manchin. Per the Washington Post:

Other policy battles remain unresolved, even after Biden huddled with Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) during a lengthy, meeting at his Delaware home on Sunday. That includes paid leave, as Manchin continues to fight its inclusion in the package, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks. Party lawmakers already have had to scale back their ambitions from 12 weeks of leave to 4 weeks, as they try to lower the overall cost of the bill, angering liberals who have vowed to expand the program.

Manchin on Monday declined to offer his specific concerns on paid leave.

There’s a strain of thought that, as with the Affordable Care Act, the left should just be content with eating shit in order to somewhat improve the lives of a subset of people, rather than draw a line in the sand for basic human dignity for everyone. Judging by the fact that the House Democratic leadership is apparently more worried about selling the deal that comes out of this than whipping votes, it’s clear that strain of thought is winning.

Manchin’s office similarly did not respond to Discourse Blog’s request for comment Monday. But pulling back from yet another debate about Who Joe Manchin Is and What He Wants: the paid family leave plan as it was proposed in the House was already pretty horrible. After years of pushing a public paid family leave plan, the solution that has seemingly won out is another safety net policy Frankensteined into existence seemingly for no other reason than to make it harder for poor people to access and stop the federal government from making people’s lives better.

The austerity politics we’re getting now is also coming through in every other contentious part of the bill. Kyrsten Sinema is likely to singlehandedly kill a provision allowing the federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices and therefore lowering their cost. Manchin, meanwhile, reportedly opposes both expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing, as well as a plan from Georgia’s two Democratic senators—the only reason Manchin is in a position to kill any of these demands at all—to expand Medicaid to states which didn’t after the Affordable Care Act passed.

Medicare for All, free college, and any of the other big, sweeping policies which animated the Sanders campaign and the progressive left over the past few years are nowhere to be found. This is exactly the kind of incremental progress Democratic voters have been promised for years. To not actually do it when they have the chance is a massive failure.

And now, instead of getting three months of paid parental leave—the global average for paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, by the way—it’s possible it won’t make it in the bill at all, and if it does, it’ll be an insulting four weeks. It’s bad politics and bad policy, but more than that, it’s spitting in the face of the people who voted to give the Democrats this mandate in the first place, some of whom risked their lives to do so.

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As a Paid Leave for All spokesperson told the Washington Post last week, four weeks “can still be meaningful” to people who have no guaranteed paid leave. But if you’re in the “something is better than nothing” camp, you have to ask yourself just how far you’re willing to take that; as one semi-viral tweet from paid leave activist Jessica Shortall pointed out, puppies get more time with their mothers than what the Democrats are willing to take as a win.

If, on the other hand, you believe that four weeks is unsatisfactory but nonetheless a starting point for something to build on and make better down the line, you have to ask who you’re fooling. Big safety net programs are rarely refined and improved, and after next November, it could be a decade or more before Democrats get unified power again.

Even taking into account the anti-democratic nature of the Senate, it should have been relatively easy to do this with a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president. That was, after all, the whole pitch behind reconciliation in the first place.

The fact that it hasn’t been easy, and it’s members of their own caucus who’ve negotiated them down to almost nothing, is an indictment of the party’s recruiting strategy (although the ghosts of Sara Gideon and Cal Cunningham certainly must be haunting Chuck Schumer every time he closes his eyes). It’s also an indictment of the Democrats’ ability to actually follow through on their promises and not the worst, most watered-down version of them.

And the longer this all drags out, the more the progressives who have just as much leverage to kill both bills as Manchin, Sinema, or any House moderate have to wonder: at what point does the win no longer seem like a win at all?