IT WAS NO surprise that the president vetoed the Parental and Medical Leave bill last week. He had certainly signaled his opposition in advance. But it was a disappointment nevertheless. The measure would have required firms with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave when a child is born or adopted or when a spouse, child or parent has a medical emergency that requires care at home. It may have been a bit much to swallow all this in one bite, but the president's veto message was far more sweeping and categorical than the terms of this particular legislation required.
The bill was greeted at the White House as if it were the first to impose some kind of responsibility on employers for the welfare of their workers. This ignores popular and well-established laws such as Social Security, minimum wage and hour regulations, and health and safety rules. The president decried the very idea of "rigid federally imposed conditions," which he claimed would hurt U.S. business in a competitive marketplace and deprive workers of choosing what benefits they wanted. Without any valid statistical evidence -- for no one knows how many employers already provide some form of this benefit or how many workers would be able to afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave -- he said that mandated benefits would "stifle the creation of new jobs" and perhaps eliminate existing ones.
The administration and the business community fear that Democrats will try to make employers pay for programs, such as national health insurance, that the government cannot afford. But this bill, which called for unpaid leave, is hardly a mandate for expenditures of that magnitude. The president's message seems to rule out his support for any employer mandates at all.
Can the veto be overridden? It's unlikely. The bill was passed by the House on a vote that falls 46 short of being veto-proof. The Senate didn't even take the trouble to have a roll call. This may not be the year for this legislation, but women now make up 45 percent of the American work force and that number is rising. The issue will not go away. Perhaps a less ambitious bill, one protecting the jobs of new parents, will garner more support next year. It's worth a try.