By Jonathan Cohn
Nancy Pelosi and a handful of Democratic colleagues plan to unveil a new policy agenda on Thursday afternoon. The focus will be on initiatives to help women—mostly, by making sure they get equal treatment in the workplace and helping them navigate work-family issues. The specifics won’t be available until the actual event, scheduled on Capitol Hill for about 1:30 p.m. But it’s safe to assume the agenda will include some familiar ideas, like making it easier for workers to take parental or medical leaves and improving access to good childcare.
You might be wondering why Pelosi would choose this particular moment to lay out such an agenda. It’s not like Congress is spending time on these issues. But that’s precisely the point Pelosi wants to make, and has actually been trying to make for a while. Congress should be spending time on these issues. She’s right.
The country has undergone a massive social revolution in the last few decades, as women have moved from the home to the workplace. But we haven’t constructed a society that accommodates these new arrangements. If you’re a parent and you want to take extended time off for a newborn, chances are you’ll have to give up pay. If you’re looking for day care, chances are you’ll struggle to find it. Parents in other developed countries don’t face these problems, at least to the extent their American counterparts do. And while policy solutions to these problems are complicated—just the other day, Slate’s Clare Lundberg wrote about how French parental leave laws make companies reluctant to hire them—in this country lawmakers are not even discussing them.
Changing that won’t be easy. For one thing, policies to help parents in general—and women in particular—sometimes require government spending. That’s most obviously true of childcare. Any sensible approach to improving child care involves setting aside a lot more public money, so that more people can afford care and, indirectly, so that providers can pay to hire truly qualified caregivers. But Republicans are dead-set on reducing government spending, not expanding it. The most Democrats can do is keep the cuts manageable. Another problem, more specific to Pelosi, is that her party does not control the House. If it did, then Thursday’s event could be taking place ina committee hearing room, rather than on the steps of the Capitol.
But Pelosi isn’t thinking about tomorrow, or even next week. Instead, she’s thinking about the long-term. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but that’s the way these sorts of policies become law. A few weeks ago, after my own article on problems with American childcare appeared, Pelosi sat down for a conversation about these issues. She reminded me that the most significant piece of work-family legislation in recent history—the Family Medical Leave Act—also started out as a seemingly hopeless cause. Advocates spent more than a decade building support for it, through a steady campaign of hearings, events, and votes. It was a Democratic initiative but, slowly, it picked up some Republican support. By the early 1990s, the only obstacle to enactment was President George H. W. Bush, who vetoed the bill twice. That changed when Bill Clinton took office. FMLA was the very first law he signed. (Ronald Elving's book, Conflict and Compromise, tells this story in detail.)
Pelosi’s challenge is a little different this time. The Republicans who control the House seem to be getting more hostile to government action, not less. And while at least some of her agenda might have bipartisan appeal, Pelosi herself has become a highly polarizing figure. But Pelosi sees at least one reason to be optimistic: generational change. One reason these issues haven’t gotten attention is that only women seemed to care about them—and there weren’t that many women occupying powerful positions in Washington. Today, about a fifth of all lawmakers in Congress are women, the highest proportion ever (even if it’s still woefully short of their proportion of the population). A woman (Pelosi) was Speaker of the House until her party lost control; another (Hillary Clinton) is widely thought to be the frontrunner in the 2016 presidential election, should she choose to run.
An equally important change may be among the men, more of whom have grown up in an era when they are expected (rightly) to take on at least some share of parenting and housework. It’s not entirely coincidental that the two presidents who have taken these issues most seriously—Clinton and Obama—both had wives with professional careers. Much more than their predecessors, certainly, they understood that childrearing was their responsibility, too. And that’s even more true of younger men coming into government now. “People your age, my son, they see women working,” Pelosi says. “Maybe their mom worked, maybe she didn’t, but their sisters probably do. … It’s a whole different culture in that regard.”
In the short term, Pelosi and her allies will have to make the most of their limited opportunities for action—whether it’s using reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant to improve standards for childcare, or squeezing out a little funding for Obama’s promising pre-kindergarten initiative. “Every time I’ve talked to the president, I’ve told him how excited I am that he has [pre-k] in his budget,” Pelosi says. But Pelosi thinks there will be a time when Congress is ready to do bigger things. Wednesday’s event represents a first step towards preparing for that day. “It may take time,” she says, “but we want to get a running start.”