Like kites in a windstorm, children's and family issues are suddenly soaring or plummeting in Washington on political currents over which they have little control. What was down - parental leave - is soaring. What was grounded - minimum wage - will likely soon take off. What was up - child care - is down, maybe for good.
What's causing all this change? Lots of things, all occurring together. Presidential politics. Congressional politics. Conflicts of convictions. And the biennial Capitol Hill sport that rivals the perils in the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain: the running of more congressional bills toward floor action than Congress has time to consider in the month before adjournment.
A week ago a majority in the House of Representatives flatly opposed a proposal to require large United States companies to provide unpaid leave to parents to care for newborn, adopted, or ill children. Many Republicans, and some conservative Democrats, lined up against it. Businesses adamantly opposed it as too expensive.
Suddenly, both the House and Senate are expected to approve the proposal - and President Reagan to sign it. Presidential politics has made the difference: This week Republican nominee George Bush began letting out word that he would soon take a position on it.
``With all this telegraphing, he's not going to say he's against it,'' Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute says of the vice-president. A Bush proposal in support of parental leave is expected any day. At the White House, officials ``figure it's just hard to veto this one,'' Mr. Besharov notes. ``They don't have a really good argument against'' parental leave, and don't want to lose votes among young adults.
A similar situation applies with the minimum wage. Voting against an increase isn't easy in an election year. With Mr. Bush also having signaled his willingness to consider a change in the minimum wage, it too may find sudden acceptance this fall. The prime problem - reaching agreement on a subminimum wage for teen-agers - seems less thorny than the disagreements enmeshing child-care proposals.
A few weeks ago it seemed that child care was the one family issue to which Congress could not say no.
Yet child care has become an issue that is probably headed for a crash landing. Why? In answer Rep. Dale Kildee (D) of Michigan, a prime House sponsor, offers the words of that quintessential American political analyst Jimmy Durante: ``Everybody wants ta get inta da act.''
Congress has been deluged by child-care proposals: the $2.5 billion plan of Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Representative Kildee to help low- and moderate-income families buy child care; a less expensive proposal by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah; and Vice-President Bush's tax-credit idea for low-income families, to mention the three most prominent.
Probably the biggest stumbling block to passage of the Dodd-Kildee proposal, a key lobbyist says, is disagreement on the church-state issue: Should federal funds be provided to church-run day-care centers?
Senator Dodd, who says yes, and Senator Hatch, who says no, have been trying to reach a compromise. Most observers say the issue is deadlocked and will remain so. Even if a compromise pops up, difficult issues remain: Should the middle class be provided funds, or should they be targeted to the poor? Would the Dodd bill establish the beginnings of a new bureaucracy? Would a tax credit alone be effective?
For their part the presidential candidates have moved on from child care to other issues. John Chubb of the Brookings Institution calls child care a presidential issue ``of a month ago.''
A congressional staff member who tracks the child-care issue notes there may be insufficient time to reach agreement during this Congress, already itching to adjourn by Oct. 15.
Late last week Mr. Kildee and others sought to get House leaders to schedule the bill for a specific day but failed. Democrats don't want to give Bush an opportunity to brand them, and presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, tax-and-spenders.
A vote is possible, however, if congressional Democrats ultimately conclude that the Dukakis candidacy is doomed, and they must look to their own reelections. ``Right now,'' Brookings's Mr. Chubb says, ``they're all hopeful that Dukakis can pull this thing out.
``But if Bush gets a 15-point lead, then Congress may start legislating pretty rapidly,'' so that Democrats can position themselves as being on the side of their constituents.