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Opinion The viral dads of Congress know family policy isn’t just women’s work

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) talks to the infant child of Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) in the House Chamber at the Capitol on Jan. 3. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
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A change — specifically, a changing table — might be coming to the House of Representatives. Yes, it took 234 years for male lawmakers to pursue accommodations for their own babies. At least the shambolic start of the 118th Congress, during which some members brought their little ones to the House floor only to discover the House isn’t exactly family-friendly, might turn out to accomplish something.

But upgrades for congressional parents should just be the start for this Congress’s family policy. Reps. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) know they went viral for doing parenting tasks women routinely perform without thanks. Next up: pitching in on the legislative tasks that have traditionally been relegated to women, such as fighting for paid family leave and more accessible child care.

The men of Congress might be a couple of centuries late to the idea of parenting as a shared enterprise. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2018 that children were allowed on the Senate floor, a rule that enforced a strict separation between family and governing. But a belated arrival is better than none at all.

To hear men such as Gomez and Castro talk about the logistical challenges and wrenching choices involved in parenting while pursuing a high-powered career is a relief. If those dilemmas can no longer simply be outsourced to women — or if a new generation of fathers doesn’t want to hand off that work — then the engaged constituency for family-friendly policy suddenly doubles.

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Take the supply of child care. Gomez wore his 4-month-old son, Hodge, around the Capitol not just because he wanted to, but also because the deputy mayor of Los Angeles — his wife — had to fly back to her job. And once their jet-lagged baby was back home, Gomez’s mother, who was supposed to take over his care, got a stomach bug.

“I just realized, maybe it’s just my being naive, being my first kid, it’s like we have to have primary child care,” he told me. “Then you have to have two or three different emergency backups, and we didn’t have that in place. So we’re kind of scrambling.”

Congressional dads also confronted accessibility issues during the extended speakership fight. Castro said navigating his youngest daughter, Anna Valentina, around the House floor in a stroller showed him just how awkward the space is, both for parents and wheelchair users. Every new parent has a realization like this one, but even a cliche can be galvanizing.

Perhaps it’s for that reason that family policy is the rare policy arena capable of producing surprising alliances — and a shared sense of reality — in Congress.

The champion of the expanded House day-care center that opened in 2019? None other than Kevin McCarthy (R), now the newly minted speaker. At the time, he argued that the facility was a crucial staff retention measure — a position he has in common with crunchy outdoor outfitter Patagonia, a pioneer in on-site corporate day care.

McCarthy’s office didn’t respond to a request to share any lessons the speaker has gleaned from the center’s existence. But if Republicans are reluctant to support government-run day-care facilities, perhaps they might be more amenable to generous tax credits to businesses to build and staff their own on-site child care programs.

Having, respectively, one, three and five children hasn’t led Gomez, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to the same conclusion about how to pay for family leave after a birth or adoption. Still, these three lawmakers all agree parents need more financial support during a uniquely vulnerable time.

That’s a better starting point for negotiation than you get on most issues in this polarized Congress. As Gomez put it to me, “I think that at least there is an acknowledgment that there is a need and a problem. And then when you do that, then you can start fighting over the solutions.”

Gomez also suggested that Democrats shouldn’t be averse to starting small and building over time. California’s paid family leave program, he pointed out, began in 2004 by offering to replace just 55 percent of workers’ wages. That figure wasn’t high enough to prompt many lower-income families to participate. But over time, it’s become more generous: Last fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would replace up to 90 percent of income for workers making up to $57,000 annually. And, as Gomez pointed out, policy change can drive a shift in culture. More California dads have taken parental leave since the initial policy went into effect.

So sure, the cute pictures of Hodge Gomez in a baby carrier or Anna Valentina in her father’s arms might lead to a changing table in the men’s members-only restroom — but that’s a small step for the House babies. It’ll be up to their dads to take bigger leaps on behalf of babykind.