As appropriations, immigration and guns dominate congressional headlines, two issues seem to be picking up bipartisan traction on Capitol Hill – paid family leave and sex trafficking.
President Trump has opened the door to paid family leave legislation. First daughter Ivanka Trump and GOP Senator Marco Rubio are teaming up on a proposal that would allow people to tap into their future Social Security benefits to pay for family leave. Congressional Democrats are pushing a more aggressive plan that would increase employee and employer payroll taxes to cover the cost of paid family leave.
Five states, including Washington, already require paid family leave. Eight states, including Oregon, have expanded the length of unpaid family leave. Most US workers are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for a newborn child or care for an aging parent. The City of New York expanded its family leave policy to include recuperation from domestic abuse.
Supporters of paid family leave point to data showing only 14 percent of US workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. Most employees, they suggest, cannot afford to take off long amounts of unpaid leave.
Opponents say mandating paid family leave will make it more expensive to hire employees and lead to fewer jobs. Businesses are caught in the middle and disapprove of what has become a patchwork of family leave policies state to state and, in some cases, community to community.
NPR ran a story that included a vignette about Joe Fain, a Washington state senator, who took an unpaid leave when his son was born and became an advocate for the benefit. At the time, the City of Seattle had adopted expanded leave policies, which led businesses to push the state legislature to act. Fain says, in the same way, states are now pushing for federal action.
While the various sides of this issue aren’t close to a compromise, there is broad agreement that paid family leave is important to getting newborns off to a good start and to helping families cope with illnesses by aging parents.
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, is pushing hard for legislation to protect potential sex trafficking victims and make online websites liable if they enable sex trafficking. His bill, called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, has attracted 60 congressional cosponsors and is supported by law enforcement, civil rights and faith-based groups.
Portman says he became interested in the subject after meeting with Ohio constituents who described incidents of sex trafficking in their communities, in many cases associated with opioid abuse. Portman says sex trafficking is big business that has increased, despite tougher penalties, because of what he called the “ruthless efficiency” of the “dark side of the internet.” He blames an 850 percent increase in sex trafficking since 2015 on the “emergence of companies like Backpage.com, which probably has about 75 percent of the commercial sex traffic on one site.”
Some technology companies have pushed back on Portman’s cure of removing legal immunity for online platforms, claiming it would expose the companies behind those platforms to lawsuits for content their users post. Loss of legal immunity, they say, could chill continuing development and expansion of online platforms.
While paid family leave and sex trafficking solutions will require answering significant policy questions, they may provide Congress with an easier avenue to address serious social problems plaguing America than trying to reform immigration policy or agree on ways to stem gun violence. If nothing else, these complex issues have not been reduced to polarizing slogans, which is allowing for collaborative conversations and potential bipartisan compromises.