Politics

Debunking the GOP’s Ridiculous Arguments Against Child Care Expansion

Mitch McConnell adjusts his glasses while speaking into microphones and standing in front of two U.S. flags.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at the Russell Senate Office Building on Tuesday. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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Democratic Washington Sen. Patty Murray has been one of Congress’ strongest supporters of working families ever since she entered the chamber in 1993. That same year saw the Family and Medical Leave Act signed into law, which was a big step forward for employers’ leave policies—but nowhere near enough, as the leave guaranteed was unpaid. In the three decades since that legislation’s passage, there haven’t been any significant updates to child care infrastructure. But something shifted when the pandemic hit. “I was hearing from businesses, from Chambers of Commerce, who are trying to keep some semblance of order, who couldn’t get their employees to come to work simply because of child care,” Murray says. With everybody now “facing the same crisis,” a new opportunity has emerged for fixing this country’s child care systems—President Joe Biden is putting the weight of his office behind policies that would make day care and preschool more accessible and provide paid family leave. But can these measures pass through a Congress with an obstructionist GOP? To find out, I spoke with Murray on Thursday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: You’ve told the story about how when you first got to the Senate, you were pushing for the Family and Medical Leave Act. You went onto the floor and gave a speech about how important it was, and you talked about a friend who couldn’t spend time with their dying teenager without fearing they’d lose their job. Can you talk a bit about how your colleagues responded when you told that story?

Sen. Patty Murray: I remember as if it were yesterday. I had a male senator come over to me afterward and say, “We don’t tell personal stories on the floor of the United States Senate.” And I remember looking right at him and saying, “I came here to tell personal stories about what’s happening to people so we can change laws to make them work for people in this country.”

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That legislation was a compromise. There were exceptions, loopholes, red tape. You’ve said that you thought the FMLA was just the beginning and that it would be sort of the first start of more legislation to come. Why wasn’t it? What happened after that?

I feel like what happened was people thought, “Well, we already did that”—and these are people, by the way, who get paid enough that they don’t have to worry about unpaid family leave. There was no understanding that this didn’t work for a lot of people because it was unpaid.

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You’ve been one of the only women in the Senate for decades, and you also have a history of being in a family that needed food stamps. I wonder if that kind of diversity in the Senate is just as necessary, and harder to get.

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There is no doubt about it: If you understand from a personal perspective what it’s like to live through real experiences that people have, if you’re not from a wealthy or elite background, then you stand on that floor of the Senate and you fight for it. I understood the need for those kinds of policies, including food stamps, because my dad was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when I was a teenager. There were seven kids in our family, and my mom, who literally thought she was going to stay home and raise seven kids, all of a sudden had to go out, get some skills, get a job, raise seven kids, and take care of my dad. We made it because of food stamps and because my dad was a veteran and got some VA benefits. We made it because there were those support systems in place that helped families. I know many families in this country today don’t have a megaphone, but they’re living with these issues and it’s our job to lift them up and help them become whatever they can be. Otherwise, we’re losing so much of our population. It’s personal to me. I’ve lived it.

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When you would tell your colleagues that the FLMA isn’t working for a substantial portion of people in this country, what would they say?

Well, usually it was a pat on the head, “Oh, yeah, I understand,” and then never making it a priority. What has changed is now we have more women in the Senate, more people with that lived experience, more younger men whose wives are at work and who are also struggling with how to take care of kids and do jobs. So it’s not just me at a committee raising it once in my five minutes of time—it’s echoed throughout the Senate by other people. And this pandemic has made that echo into a roar from constituents who are telling their members of Congress this has to be taken care of.

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I have talked to so many people who have not taken a promotion or added hours because they couldn’t afford more child care. So in the Child Care for Working Families Act [which Murray recently reintroduced in Congress] we make sure that no working family under 150 percent of state median income pays more than 7 percent of their income on child care, and that families who are earning above 75 percent of state median pay their fair share on a sliding scale. Families under 75 percent of state median income don’t pay anything at all.

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The first thing we do is say, “We’re going to make it affordable for you.” Secondly, we’re improving the quality by helping to pay for caretakers. Ask any child care provider: Turnover is huge, pay is really low, and it’s hard to keep people in those jobs. They can make more at McDonald’s than they can taking care of people’s kids. So improving the pay is really a critical part of this, as well as improving the skills to make sure they have what they need to be able to do these jobs.

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I think I can hear the Republican pushback already just because I’ve heard it before: that people make their choices and they should only make choices they can afford.

Well, first of all, the talking point I heard at our hearing actually was: You guys are making it so parents want to go to work rather than stay home with their kids. I almost leapt out of my chair. People don’t choose to go to work because they’re lazy. They don’t choose to go to work because they just want to do something. They choose to go to work so they can put food on the table and make sure their kids can go to college and afford this economy we live in today. And in doing so, they increase the skills at workplaces and help our economy grow. So I don’t buy that for a minute. I think it is essential that we make sure people have those basic things they need so they can go and make sure their family’s OK, that their community’s OK, that the business they work for profits, and that we all do better.

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It’s a funny pushback, that you’re trying to push people into work, when for such a long time legislators talked about it as a real value to, for instance, tie welfare benefits to work.

Not only that, but I am assuming most parents feel like I do. I want the choices for our other daughters that if they want to go to work and use their skills and be competitive and help their families, I want them to have that choice. I don’t want them to have to be forced to stay home because there isn’t any quality care, and I don’t want them to have to be forced to go to work. I want them to have options. The way we do that is providing quality child care so people can go to work and make that kind of choice.

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You’ve been known as a deal-maker in your time on Capitol Hill, meeting with pretty conservative people like Paul Ryan and try to understand their perspective so you could think about how to move legislation forward. I wonder whether your approach to compromise has changed at all over the last four years, over the last six months.

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There are very few Republicans today who are saying child care is not a problem. They know it’s a problem for their employees. They know it’s an issue for their constituents. They know it’s an issue for their families. The solution is always hard to get to. I’m listening and trying to get to a solution that works for everybody.

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Mitch McConnell has said Biden’s American Families Plan is something that liberals want, not what “Americans” want.

That argument, I just blow past it because—seriously—if you talk to anybody in this country that is not super wealthy, you know child care is an issue and that people are falling behind because they don’t have access. I’ll say this to everyone who doubts child care: Anybody who’s at work and is worried about the safety of their kids in a child care situation, or worried about what they’re going to do tomorrow about their child care, isn’t performing to their best ability. They’re just not. If you want people in your own office or your own family or your own community to be able to do the best job they can, then let’s solve this problem.

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