Updated at 11:50 a.m. ET on May 5, 2021.
If Colin Allred had been in Washington two weeks ago, he would have gone to the White House for the Congressional Black Caucus’s meeting with the president. Instead, he was in his garage in Dallas, cradling his newborn, pedaling his exercise bike, and occasionally reading briefing memos from his staff on his phone.
The representative from Texas was the first member of Congress to take paternity leave, in 2019, when his first son was born.* He’s now also the third member of Congress to take paternity leave, with his colleague Seth Moulton of Massachusetts having taken leave in February: Allred’s second son was born at the end of March.
At least, Allred was the first member of Congress to admit that he was taking paternity leave. Others may have snuck in a few days here and there, but if they did, they weren’t gone for long. Congress does not maintain a human-resources file. And like much of the rest of America, members of Congress don’t have an official paid-leave policy. When Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois gave birth to her second daughter, in 2018, she was told that if she took official leave, that could lead to her being stripped of some of her parliamentary rights in the chamber. Allred took two weeks with his first son and is taking a month with his second.
Allred isn’t the stereotype of a paid-leave advocate. His background will confuse people who think of paid leave as a “women’s issue” or one for bleeding-heart liberals and dreamy ideologues. He’s a 38-year-old former NFL player, a Black man who flipped a Republican district in 2018, held on to it in 2020, and is now waiting to see how Texas legislators gerrymander it ahead of next year’s midterms. He sees leave as a bipartisan issue, and backs up that belief with action: He was one of just a handful of Democrats who attended a paid-leave summit hosted by Ivanka Trump in December 2019, six days before he voted to impeach her father.
A month later, Donald Trump proposed a paid-leave program in his final State of the Union address. Tomorrow night, President Joe Biden is expected to propose paid leave in his own speech to Congress. But for all the bipartisan support for the concept, there’s very little agreement on how to pass a federal paid-leave program.
The pandemic was supposed to recalibrate how America—one of the few countries without a national paid-leave law—thinks about work-life balance. Pandemic-related changes have certainly made Allred’s second paternity leave easier than his first. During his previous leave, when he missed big votes back in Washington, he issued statements about which way he would have voted. He’s spent this month redirecting nearly every official duty to his staff (we talked during a brief nap time on a Monday afternoon), but with the House allowing proxy voting to encourage social distancing, Allred can still register his yeas and nays even if he’s in the middle of rocking his baby to sleep. He’s decided that a couple of proxy votes each week are an acceptable way to balance his job in a narrowly divided House with his responsibility to care for his young children.
Congress has never done much to help Americans who aren’t in the House or Senate take paid leave either. But action is coming, Richie Neal promised me. As the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Massachusetts Democrat is one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill. When congressional leaders met with Biden in the Oval Office at the beginning of February, Neal told the president that whatever the White House’s plans might be, he would include paid leave in upcoming legislation. “And I’m going to be with you,” Neal said Biden told him. (The president and his aides have publicly remained cagey about his plans.) Last week, Neal held a Zoom hearing on caregiving, enabling women from all over the country to testify, and today he’s releasing a paid-leave proposal he’s hoping Biden will support.
“There’s a rhythm to legislative life, and the pandemic has been so gripping that now is the time to do it, while the memories are fresh,” Neal told me last week. He ticked through the statistics about the number of people who are unemployed or have left the workforce, about how many women have been forced to choose between their job and child care. “You could actually meld this need, and treat it simultaneously as a good long-term investment in worker productivity and address a real, pressing social need,” Neal said.
Neal on Tuesday is releasing what he’s calling the Building an Economy for Families Act, which would create a new entitlement of 12 weeks’ leave through a public program administered by the Treasury Department, existing comprehensive state paid-leave programs, or employers providing high-quality benefits. The trick, as with anything in Congress, will be paying for the program. Though Republican Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida have been supportive of tax credits to pay for child care, a leave law would require a huge amount of government support. Republicans are unlikely to support raising taxes (probably by eliminating Trump-era cuts) in order to pay for a leave program, but Democrats are unlikely to support cutting existing programs to redirect funding, as Republicans want. So where’s the money going to come from? “As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, I’m not going to tell you,” Neal said with a laugh, reflecting the wariness of Democrats to give opponents a target to fire at before building support for the bill. I asked Neal if he’s optimistic that the paid-leave bill he wants could get Republican votes. “I am going to make every effort to get their support,” he said gingerly.
While campaigning for president, Biden advocated for a policy that would guarantee up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, plus seven days of sick leave and tax credits to help families pay for child care. The proposal also included paid leave for survivors of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault. “Biden will pay for this national paid leave program,” a statement on his website explained, “by making sure the super wealthy pay their fair share in taxes.” Advocates committed to the issue have avoided criticizing Biden for waiting until now to make good on those promises, wary, as many liberals have been, of taking shots at the new president. They seem to have gotten their way: the $1 trillion proposal Biden is expected to lay out tomorrow night will reportedly include a $225 billion plan for leave, but the White House is approaching the rollout carefully. A White House aide, requesting anonymity to discuss internal discussions, would only say that Biden “has been clear about his support for permanent paid family and medical leave. It was President Biden who included emergency paid leave in his rescue plan; and it was President Biden who signed into law an extension of a paid leave credit so that more families right now have access to paid leave.”’
Listening to legislative-process talk, or trying to translate Biden’s aspirational speechifying into a sense of what will actually become law can make your eyes start glazing over. No one has ever been excited to hear members of Congress discuss whether paid leave could pass via the arcane reconciliation process in the Senate, which would require only 51 votes and bypass a potential filibuster. Yet as people in the Capitol bat around the particulars of parliamentary procedure, the gulf between public opinion and congressional inaction is widening.
Even before the pandemic, American attitudes on paid leave were shifting. A poll from February conducted in the 67 most competitive congressional districts found that 67 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats support paid leave. Among white-collar companies in many industries, there’s been a race to expand policies as a way of enticing employees to stay. The workforce is now full of the granddaughters and great-granddaughters of the women who first started juggling careers and parenting, and men whose understanding of detached fatherhood isn’t anything like Ward Cleaver’s or Don Draper’s. Even Jesse Watters, the Fox News host who got famous doing stunt interviews on the street, making fun of liberal talking points for Bill O’Reilly’s show, made a brief appearance on air this month to tell his colleagues, “I used to mock people for taking paternity; I used to think it was a big ruse. But now, you know, I wish I could take six weeks.”
Allred can rattle off stats about how the lack of a national paid-leave law matters the most for workers who aren’t at white-collar companies. He can talk about developmental studies that show how children and parents both benefit from time spent together, or that a number of studies show that employees with leave tend to come back to their job more productive. He can talk about how paid leave is a family-values issue. He can talk about his personal story, how his mother sent him to school with chicken pox because she didn’t have any other option when she had to go to work, and how growing up not knowing his father made him determined to be a true presence in the lives of his own children. But Allred hasn’t yet dug into the details of what paid-leave legislation should look like. He is, after all, still on leave himself, he reminded me. But he said he’s eager to speak with the congressional liaison at the White House as soon as he’s back.
“We need a different face on the issue than just the liberal wish-list item. The way this would happen and the way it can be palatable for a broad spectrum of members is a different approach, and one that’s not just based in the wider conversation of compensation and hours and all that, but specifically in families and in business productivity,” Allred said. This being the moment for making paid leave real, he argued, might have to do not just with the pandemic, but with this president. “Biden is a great messenger,” Allred said. “He took the train home every day after his wife died, and he was there for his boys, and he was a single parent for quite a while.”
For Ivanka Trump, who almost completely evaporated from public view as her father’s presidency ended, the paid-leave push presents an opportunity. Paid leave was central to the image she aspired to project as a Fifth Avenue liberal embedded in a nativist White House—a champion of women’s empowerment working for a president who went on about “suburban housewives.” She talked about paid leave back when she was still voting for Democrats. She kept talking about it through the 2016 campaign, and over her four years working in the West Wing. She gradually pulled along enough Republicans that Congress approved 12 weeks of paid leave for federal workers in 2019 (though not for members of Congress, like Allred, and their staffs). The former president proudly signed the bill, the most significant expansion of parental leave since Bill Clinton signed an unpaid-leave law in 1993. Republicans talked about being “family first” and prided themselves on conservative values, Ivanka argued, and that meant taking care of children and families. “Ivanka has been an advocate for paid family leave for many years and brought the issue to the front of policy discussions for the Republican Party,” Julie Radford, her former chief of staff and the point person for these efforts, told me. “Due to her efforts over the last four years, we’ve seen this issue become a bipartisan one, and she continues to want to see every working American have access to paid family leave.”
Beyond the paid-leave policy for federal workers, Ivanka’s efforts didn’t produce a new law, even when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and were eager to pass bills that would please her father. Democrats who supported the federal-workers change remained suspicious that she was just looking for something that would put a softer focus on her. Two years ago, after working on a bill of her own and meeting with Ivanka to try to hash out some kind of collaboration, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York declared that Congress was “closer than ever to creating a national paid-leave program.” But “we need to make sure we do it right and not end up with something that is paid leave in name only,” Gillibrand added, referring to a Republican effort that she believed would have left many Americans ineligible. Ivanka’s effort, by Gillibrand’s calculations at the time, would have covered only about a quarter of the people already taking unpaid leave, and Democrats weren’t enthusiastic about pulling money out of Social Security to pay for it. In February of this year, touting a reintroduction of a paid-leave law that’s been languishing the past 10 years, Gillibrand proclaimed that after the pandemic, “we are better poised than ever before to pass this bill.”
If actually passing paid leave is so close to happening, and Ivanka remains committed to this issue, what would she be willing to do to try to keep the momentum going, given that she’s not in the White House anymore and her father isn’t president? One can only claim to truly have shifted the conversation if the shift lasts. It’s hard to imagine some joint event with Ivanka and Biden standing side by side in a show of odd-couple unity, but maybe an op-ed or a television appearance, reminding Republicans that they said they were in favor of paid leave? Or perhaps something less public, like calling around to senators who became key allies, such as Bill Cassidy of Louisiana or Elise Stefanik, the young representative from upstate New York, who has since November been trying harder to identify with the Trumpist side of her party.
The line I got from people familiar with Ivanka’s thinking is that she is still focused on her family after her time in government, and believes that it’s up to the people in charge now to take the lead; at the very least, she would want to see a final bill before taking a stand. Through a spokesperson, Ivanka declined to comment on any plans to get involved. Much Republican persuasion would be needed to pass paid leave as part of the giant package Biden is proposing: Cassidy’s spokesperson Molly Block told me that the senator continues to view paid family leave as an important issue, and remains committed to the bipartisan working group on the issue. But “having worked so hard to find the right policy, he knows that slapping money on an infrastructure bill and hoping that things work is not the right way to proceed,” she added.
“I hope it’s not a Nixon-goes-to-China, where my Republican colleagues will only do it with a Republican president,” Allred said. “But I was certainly willing to do it with a Republican president, and I’m willing to do it obviously now with Joe Biden as well.”
Of the Republican colleagues who have congratulated him on the new baby, Allred said, none has mentioned that they would be willing to get behind a paid-leave bill. Back in his district, though, it has been pretty clear how the issue looks outside of Congress, like when a local news station ran a warm segment on Allred’s leave decision.
“I think we can all agree that it’s just as important for the father to bond with the child. It’s better for the newborn, it’s better for the mom, and I think it’s just better for the whole family,” one of the anchors, Cynthia Izaguirre, told viewers.
“Especially with more dads involved hands-on now. It’s not like it was 30, 40 years ago,” her fellow anchor, Chris Lawrence, responded.
“Yeah, my mom says my dad never changed one diaper,” she said.
“I’ve changed plenty,” he added, as the music for the commercial break started.
Allred is still waiting to see how many of his congressional colleagues agree with his local news anchors—but he’ll be taking a break from leave to be in the House chamber for Biden’s speech, eager to hear about the president’s plan to make his choice accessible to everyone.
* This article previously stated that Congress does not have an official paid-leave policy. In fact, while Congress members do not have such a policy, employees of Congress members are eligible for paid leave under the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act. The article has also been updated to reflect that Seth Moulton took parental leave in February.