The negative reviews of and cascading events from Bernie Sanders’ less-than-deft Q&A with the New York Daily News last week continue. But there is one additional passage from that interview that deserves, but has largely escaped, notice (emphasis mine):
Alright, I believe that in the midst of the kinds of crises that we face with a disappearing middle class and massive levels of income and wealth inequality, the only major country on earth not guarantee to healthcare to all people, only major country not to provide paid family and medical leave, it is time to get beyond establishment politics. So to put your question in maybe a simpler way, is she a candidate of the establishment? The answer is, of course she is.
This is an astonishing thing for Sanders to say for a couple of reasons. First because, as he surely knows, it was the “establishment” Bill Clinton who, as one of his first acts as president in 1993, signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) after it had twice been vetoed by his predecessor. Second (and maybe Sanders doesn’t know this; few do), having signed the FMLA providing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers to care for a newborn or a sick family member, Clinton, with the active help of his wife, became the first president to use federal power to provide paid leave to American workers.
I know this because I wrote the speech in which he unveiled the policies. It was a commencement address delivered on May 23, 1999 at Grambling State University, an historically black college in norther Louisiana that boasts, among other things, one of the best marching bands in the country. In the speech, Clinton announce two executive actions. First, federal workers would be allowed to use the sick leave they’d earned to take time off to care for other sick family members. Second, and potentially more important, states would be allowed to let public and private sector workers who have paid into the state’s federally regulated unemployment insurance systems to collect payments from those systems while they’re on leave caring for a newborn or a newly adopted child. Having attended the meetings where these policies were hashed out, I can assure you that they were a joint East Wing/West Wing initiative. The main person behind them was Nicole Rabner, who was the First Lady’s senior domestic policy adviser as well as a special assistant to the president.
The first policy (paid leave for federal workers) is still in place today. The second (allowing states to tap their unemployment insurance systems for paid leave) was overturned by George W. Bush, who deemed it a harmful imposition on businesses. But four states (California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington) that have separate Temporary Disability Systems, which are not federally regulated, used those systems to create basically the same voluntary family leave programs the Clintons were trying to incentivize. A major study of California’s, the largest and longest running paid leave program, found that it improved children’s health outcomes without measurably harming business productivity.
So the “establishment” politician Hillary Clinton can rightly claim a share of the credit for the paid leave programs that exist in the United States. They’re far from universal, but they’re real, up-and-running programs that seem to be working as advertised. And the reason they’re not more wide spread is not “establishment politics”–they are in fact the result of establishment politics–but Republican resistance.
Both Clinton and Sanders sponsored bills in the Senate to expand family leave that didn’t pass, and each has put forward plans to do so if they’re elected president (though the plans differ in how they’re financed). So both are, for progressives, on the “right side” of the issue. But only one of them has actually accomplished anything on this, and it isn’t Bernie Sanders.