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Gingrich out on his own on child labor, for now

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In an appearance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government last Friday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called child labor laws “truly stupid.” ADAM HUNGER REUTERS Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich listens to a question at Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire November 21, 2011.

Gingrich is known for — and proud of — his unconventional ideas. As he said himself in the same speech, “you’re going to see from me extraordinarily radical proposals.”

This one actually comes on the heels of efforts to change child labor laws around the country. But Gingrich’s suggestion that children start working as early as age nine goes far beyond what most other Republicans are proposing.

Gingrich’s “is a very extreme position,” said Anne Thompson of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, an advocacy group for low-wage workers that has fought rollbacks of child labor laws at the state level. “But it has been something that we have started to, by necessity this year, had to stand up for — these protections for children.”

In Wisconsin, Republicans this year rolled back state laws that restricted the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds could work.

Republicans in Maine increased the number of hours teens could work; a related bill allowing employers to pay teens lower “training wages” was killed.

In both states, restaurant and grocery lobbying groups pushed for the changes.

“When the new administration came in, we asked our members what could be changed to help their businesses. And they said child labor laws,” said Michelle Kussow, of the Wisconsin Grocers Association.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has argued that, while child labor is “reprehensible,” federal child labor laws are unconstitutional.

Ronald Reagan’s secretary of labor proposed loosening employment restrictions and expanding allowed hours for 14- and 15-year-olds. Restaurant operators were supportive, but blowback from the general public kept the proposals on the shelf.

One Missouri state lawmaker did attempt to legalize employment for kids under 14 and eliminate most restrictions on child labor. But she got little support from fellow Republicans and mockery from the likes of Jay Leno.

James Shrek, who studies labor policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says “this isn’t something conservatives have talked much about at all.”

Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R), the presidential candidate most opposed to regulation of any kind, has said that “it’s capitalism that eliminated child labor,” but he has not made an issue out of child labor laws.

So Gingrich is still apart from the pack here. Or at least, ahead of the curve.

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