Whither `kinder, gentler'?

THE loss of steam behind the day-care, family-leave legislation is a lesson in the workings of the US Senate. It also affords an opportunity to consider just what sort of ``kinder, gentler nation'' - to quote George Bush's acceptance speech in New Orleans - the United States would likely be under a Bush administration.

The way the family issues agenda burst onto the scene this year surprised many. But despite pervasive skepticism about the efficacy of government programs, there is a perception that the work/family equation has changed enough that working parents need some sort of help. Parental leave and increased federal aid for day care looked like ideas whose time had come.

Indeed, right after the Democratic convention, Vice-President Bush, who was trailing Michael Dukakis in the polls, especially among women, unveiled his ``children's tax credit,'' an alternative to the child-care legislation pending in Congress. Soon after, he hinted at support for parental leave, too.

This gave further impetus to both the parental-leave and the child-care bills, which were already gathering steam on their own. But it is instructive to see how the two, with the same natural constituency - working parents - drew such different responses.

The child-care bill enjoyed broad bipartisan Senate support, even though it would cost the Treasury $2.5 billion. But the family-leave bill, which would have required employers of 50 or more people to grant 10 weeks' unpaid leave for mothers and fathers of newborn, newly adopted, or seriously ill children, drew immediate and sustained fire from the business community.

The only direct costs of parental leave would be those of continuing the employee's health insurance and other such benefits during the leave. The indirect costs are much tougher to measure, but they would arguably be offset by lower turnover and higher morale and hence productivity.

Still, the US Chamber of Commerce railed against parental leave as a first step along a ``slippery slope'' toward turning American workplaces into Swedish ones, with so many fringes that no one gets any work done.

Proponents of the bill continued to insist that it was just a minimum labor standard, but for tactical reasons, the parental-leave bill was bundled into a package with the more popular child-care bill, and prospects looked reasonably bright for passage.

But then: Senate leadership could rally only 50 votes last week to limit debate on the package; under Senate rules, 60 votes were needed. One explanation is that Senate Republicans had promised business lobbyists they would keep the two bills from a floor vote - never realizing they would get that far and the chits would be called in. With no limit to floor debate, there was no chance of a vote, and so the package is dead for now.

This all makes one wonder where Mr. Bush, who is president of the Senate, was on this one if he really supports this ``family agenda.'' If the GOP was unhappy with the form the legislation was taking, couldn't he have offered amendments? The child-care bill had already been modified to include some of the tax credit aspects of his own proposal. Wasn't that worth his going to bat for, making a few phone calls?

In any case, the family agenda is unlikely to go away between the adjournment of the 100th Congress and the opening of the 101st.

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