This week, House Republicans are rolling out a plan they hope will boost the party's appeal among working families, by giving private sector workers the option of converting overtime pay to paid time off. Pushing the bill, which is expected to get a vote this week, is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who made it a key item in his big February speech pitching the GOP to working families. The speech was meant to kick off the GOP's new, softer agenda, but if the party is looking for fresh ideas after their defeat in the 2012 election, this isn't one.
Republicans introduced the same idea in 1996, 1997 and 2003, even making it one of the first 10 bills they moved in the Newt Gingrich-era. The talking points haven't changed much. "To many working men and women, time with their family is just as valuable as extra money," current House Speaker Boehner said in March of 1997. "In fact, many would prefer to have time rather than money," then-Rep. Judy Biggert said in 2003. "Time is more precious to [a working father] than the cash payments," Rep. Martha Roby told the National Review last month.
But that's typical Washington, where old ideas get repackaged every year. What labor advocates are more concerned about is that the bill supposedly aimed at helping working families might actually hurt them by undermining the 40-hour work week and "increasing overtime hours for those who don't want them and cutting pay for those who do," as Center for Economic and Policy Research economist Eileen Appelbaum wrote. The National Partnership for Women and Families said the “mis-named Working Families Flexibility Act will mean a pay cut for workers without any guaranteed flexibility or time off."
The bill didn't pass Congress in previous years for this very reason. When GOP leaders were courting New York Rep. Peter King to vote for the measure in 1997, he asked if they had spoken with labor groups about the measure. "It was as if I had said, Have you met with somebody from Mars?'" King told the Newsday on March 25 of that year. He voted against the bill.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby of the country's largest corporations, supports the bill.
In Cantor's "Making Life Work" speech in February, he explained that, "In 1985, Congress passed a law that gave state and municipal employees this flexibility, but today still denies that same privilege to the entire private sector. That’s not right.” But that move was to cut costs for government, not provide workers with more freedom, Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women And Families told the AP. And government employees generally have the protection of both a union and civil service laws.
And as Ezra Klein noted, if the problem is that working parents don’t have enough free time with their kids, then why not give them more by guaranteeing paid vacation days to employees? The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn't have a law ensuring all workers get vacations, thanks to fervent opposition from Republicans and corporate interests. "Instead, Cantor is saying that the way to solve the problem of working parents not having enough time with their kids is to give them an incentive to work more overtime," Klein wrote.
Almost any bill can be touted as a freedom issue, but it's telling when the people don't want the freedom they're supposedly getting.