Paul Ryan, the Right's Kind of Family Man

Mark Shields, appearing on PBS Newshour Friday night , expressed genuine respect for Paul Ryan’s desire to preserve the time he has with his family should he become, as seems likely, House speaker next week. “Admirably,” Shields said, “he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.” Sympathies dispensed with, he then made the obvious observation, with a dose of sarcasm for good measure. “Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will, now that he’s about to be speaker.”

Paid family and parental leave, as many know, is something the Republican Party has consistently opposed. When President Obama appealed for family-leave legislation in his 2015 State of the Union address, the GOP either laughed it off with ignorant jokes about “European economies” or made their familiar noises about “over-regulation” and “federal mandates” suffocating American businesses. That line of thinking stretches back pretty far. For illustrative purposes, let’s look only to 1993, when the Family Medical and Leave Act–which mandated twelve weeks leave, unpaid, for illness and a new child–became law under the Clinton administration. “America’s business owners are a resilient bunch, but let there be no doubt, [this legislation] will be the demise of some,” predicted one lawmaker. “And as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.” That was Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, whom Ryan is about to replace as speaker. If nothing else, the consistency of the messaging across the decades can be appreciated.

Ryan has not only internalized that messaging, of course, but owing to acknowledged policy prowess has perhaps more than any GOP lawmaker worked to enshrine such miserliness.

The budgets and policies he’s put forth are characterized by deep spending cuts mainly to programs aimed at helping low-income Americans, including child care subsidies; the ten-year budget he proposed in 2014 got 69 percent of its cuts from programs for people with low or moderate incomes. Cuts to Medicare called for in his 2011 budget proposal would have left 14 million to 19 million poor Americans without healthcare. He has expressed the desire to create still more, still stricter work requirements for people on welfare, citing the “cultural problem” among  “men in our inner cities … men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work”–this in spite of data showing that work requirements have neither reduced poverty nor significantly improved unemployment. On the legislative side, he voted against the 2009 bill that would have given federal employees four weeks of paid paternity leave.

Ryan tends to receive credit as a deep thinker who can root his policies in the economic theories of Ayn Rand, the social science of The Bell Curve author Charles Murray, and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity–the last of he which he has seemed to equate with small-government libertarianism or employed to justify it. This is exactly why accusations of hypocrisy over Ryan’s demand from his prospective employer for family time miss the point. His expectation of such a perk is entirely in keeping with his philosophy regarding work and responsibility. Jim Tankersley at The Washington Post captures it succinctly:

Ryan isn't a hypocrite. He is just revealing a policy preference – and a very mainstream Republican one. That preference is to allow the free market to decide which workers get certain benefits, like job security and schedule flexibility, and which of them don’t.

Democrats … [are] pushing hard for mandatory family leave, a higher federal minimum wage and other policies meant to force employers to bestow more benefits on workers. Republicans tend to oppose most of those efforts.... Ryan, as a rule, does not like adding mandates to the labor market, and in this, his speakership demands are consistent. He’s not asking Republicans to guarantee more family time for all future leaders of the House – only for him.

The more optimistic interpretation is that even by making his demand, Ryan will help push the discussion on paid leave for working parents in the United States–which remains the only nation in the industrialized world not to require at least some.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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