National Opinions

Clarence Page: Paul Ryan and the party of 'family values'

Clarence Page
Clarence Page

By Clarence Page

Tribune Content Agency

A chorus of spoilsports is calling Rep. Paul Ryan a hypocrite because he is demanding time to spend with his family — after voting against paid family leave for other workers. I sympathize with the critics, but they are abusing the word "hypocrite." It is not hypocritical to deny help that you never promised to give in the first place.

Ryan and his fellow Republicans, who have been urging him to run for speaker of the House, always have said they believe paid family leave is fine, if your employer wants to grant it to you. But don't expect the Grand Old Party to help you get it.

In fact, judging by the way some of his more tradition-minded colleagues reacted to Ryan's request, you might never guess they belong to the party that so long has espoused "traditional family values."

"Speaker's a big job," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and member of the hardline Freedom Caucus. "And it's not a 9-to-5 job."

Right. Or, as my Army drill sergeants used to say, "If the Army wanted you to have a wife, we would have issued you one."

That sounds lot like the GOP's line these days: If your employer wanted you to have kids and raise them, they would have given you maternity leave and other family time off. Instead, we Americans have the only industrialized country with no government-assisted paid parental leave, according to the World Policy Analysis Center at UCLA. That puts us in the same league as such less industrial lands as Papua New Guinea and Suriname.

Rep. Matt Salmon, a cofounder of the Freedom Caucus, compared Ryan to a finicky house servant. "It's like interviewing a maid for a job," he complained to The Hill, "and she says, 'I don't clean windows, I don't do floors, I don't do beds, these are the hours I'll work.' "

Yet, this is how salaries and benefits are negotiated in the marketplace, which is where conservatives say they should be decided and not on the floor of Congress. Higher salaries, paid leaves and other benefits go to those who have bargaining power in the market place, whether they act individually or in groups like unions.

That's why Ryan has voted against almost every measure proposed in recent years for paid family leave and yet happily calls for his own paid leave. He's using the bargaining power that has been granted to him by fellow Republicans who desperately hope he, better than anyone else, can unify their caucus -- a task no less challenging than herding angry cats.

For example, he voted in 2009 against the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which would have allowed federal employees to substitute up to four weeks of available paid leave to take parental leave for a newborn, an adoption or foster care.

Instead he cosponsored the Working Families Flexibility Act, which actually gave employers flexibility to substitute compensatory time off for time-and-a-half overtime pay. Family advocacy groups oppose the measure, which passed only the Republican-led House in 2013 before it died in the Democratic-led Senate.

Critics such as Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values Work, a network of advocacy organizations for paid leave, say that bill sought only to reduce payroll costs for employers. Employees would get to spend more time with their family only after working more mandatory overtime.

Nor was Ryan being inconsistent earlier this year when, as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, he delayed action on the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act.

Yet, I congratulate Ryan for highlighting how valuing family time is not for women only. "I cannot and I will not give up my family time," he told reporters after meeting with Republican lawmakers who urged him to run for speaker of the House. "I may not be able to be on the road as much as previous speakers but I pledged to make up for it with more time communicating our vision, our message."

Fine. I only wish he and the rest of Congress had done more to help other struggling families enjoy their family time, too. We should expect no less from the party of "family values."

Reach Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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