When Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Armed Services Committee chairman, was born, his birth mother faced a difficult choice.

If she wanted to keep me and raise me,” he said, “she could not keep her job.”

A new law seeks to prevent that for federal employees, while pending legislation would do the same for Americans generally.

Smith’s biological mother, a State Department employee in Prague, returned to the District in 1965 to give birth at George Washington University Hospital. After he was born, she stayed at a home for unwed mothers on Wisconsin Avenue and gave him up for adoption.

Because of State Department policy, according to Smith, “I can absolutely say that she could not keep me and keep her job.”

Perhaps Smith’s story would be different, he said in an interview, “if she had 12 weeks to figure it out.” That’s the amount of paid parental leave feds will now have under the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act that Smith shepherded to final congressional approval this week, as part of the extensive National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. It provides the 2.1 million federal workers with up to 12 weeks paid leave following childbirth, adoption or fostering.

Long overdue, it’s a measure Congress has considered for two decades.

“Can you believe that it has taken us 20 years to get here?” asked Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.). She introduced the measure then and has been fighting for its passage ever since. She was in a celebratory mood during an interview in her Rayburn House Office Building suite following her first hearing as chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing last week.

Her activism was fueled by her personal experience.

She was pregnant in 1980 with her first daughter and working for the state Senate when she asked the personnel office about leave policies.

“We don’t have any leave policies,” she recalled being told. “Women just leave.”

That story now informs her new role as chairwoman, a position she won following the death of Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the former chairman.

Her first hearing examined a bill that would provide employees nationally with 12 weeks of partially paid leave — 66 percent of their income — for the illness of themselves, a child, parent, spouse or domestic partner, or the birth or adoption of a child.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, a.k.a. the Family Act, would create a national fund, similar to Social Security, financed by a payroll tax paid by employers and employees, according to Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), the bill’s chief sponsor.

While the Congressional Budget Office figures the 2021-2024 cost of the federal leave benefit at $3.3 billion, it has not yet estimated the cost of the Family Act. The budget office also did not estimate how many people could be covered by either measure.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research projects 8 million family and medical leave claims would be paid under the Family Act annually, with an average benefit of $492 per week. The estimated total annual benefits paid out would be almost $27 billion, and $28.3 billion, including $1.3 billion in administrative costs, would be the total annual cost of the program.

“The United States needs a national paid leave policy to provide paid time off for working people who are welcoming a new child, caring for a seriously ill or injured family member, or recovering personally from a serious illness,” DeLauro told the hearing. “For everyone.”

“It is no surprise,” she added, “that a 2017 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that 250 companies offering paid family and medical leave reported better ability to attract and retain talent, higher productivity, more diverse company leadership teams, and increased profitability.”

While many companies support the Family Act, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the committee, sounded like he might not. “I have concerns about several of the proposals that we will discuss today,” he said at the hearing. “We must carefully consider the potential trade-offs from legislating a federal mandate for paid family leave, like the potential for lower pay or a reduction in other employer-based benefits.”

Like Jordan and Republicans generally, Rachel Greszler, an economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation, favors private sector action, rather than a government program, to deal with family leave issues.

“Paid family leave has costs and consequences,” she said. “And a government program can’t erase those costs. It can only redistribute them. Voluntary employer-provided policies work better because they can balance workers’ and employers’ needs at minimal costs and consequences, providing them more flexible and often more generous policies than a one-size-fits-all government program could.”

During questioning by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Greszler acknowledged that her belief in private-sector benevolence even includes a rejection of the minimum wage.

Wasserman Schultz (after repeated dodges by Greszler): “Do you believe in a minimum wage?”

Greszler: “No . . . ”

Wasserman Schultz: “Well that tells . . . us all we need to know about your views.”

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