CNN's Dana Bash fronts for the 1 percent: The debate's worst question came straight from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Her question on family leave came straight from the Chamber of Commerce playbook, myths, errors and all

Published October 14, 2015 2:38PM (EDT)

Dana Bash   (CNN)
Dana Bash (CNN)

Did the U.S. Chamber of Commerce write at least one of the questions that CNN's correspondents asked the Democratic candidates for president at Tuesday night's debate?

The Chamber (America’s most powerful business lobby group) and its Republican allies in Congress routinely use the accusation "job killer" the way Senator Joe McCarthy used the word "Communist" --  to stigmatize any policy they disagree with. Their goal is to stop any legislation that would require businesses to be more socially responsible to protect families, workers, consumers, and the environment.  Time and time again, their dire warnings -- about environmental laws, increasing taxes on the super-rich, occupational safety regulations, the minimum wage, and many others -- have been proven wrong. They consistently cry wolf.  But the Chamber and other corporate lobby groups keep repeating the "job killer" rhetoric so often that some people believe it -- even people who should know better, like the highly-paid CNN journalists on tonight's Las Vegas stage.

Consider this question from CNN's Dana Bash to Hillary Clinton:

“Carly Fiorina, the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company, argues, if the government requires paid leave, it will force small businesses to, quote, ‘hire fewer people and create fewer jobs.’ What do you say not only to Carly Fiorina, but also a small-business owner out there who says, you know, I like this idea, but I just can't afford it?”

This question comes directly out of the Chamber of Commerce's talking points.  There's plenty of evidence that paid family leave is not a "job killer."

Rather than simply repeat what Fiorina said, a responsible journalist who had done her fact-checking homework would have pointed out that Fiorina was lying – or at least misinformed.  But Bash seemed more interested in pitting the two female candidates against in each -- on a "women's" issue, no less -- than in getting to the truth.

Bash could have asked the question another way: "According to studies, many families -- mothers, fathers, and children -- have been helped by paid family leave policies in those states that have adopted it.  Most other wealthy countries have national paid family leave policies. Why do business lobby groups and Republican candidates oppose these policies?"

Or Bash could have asked: "Carly Fiorina and various business lobby groups claim that paid family leave will hurt small business and destroy jobs.  We know from the experience of several states have already have such policies that this is not true. Why do you think they keep saying this if it isn't true?"

In response to Bash, Clinton pointed out that California -- "a state as big as many countries in the world" --  has had paid family leave for many years and "it has not had the ill effects that the Republicans are always saying it will have. And I think this is -- this is typical Republican scare tactics. We can design a system and pay for it that does not put the burden on small businesses."

Bash responded with another Chamber of Commerce talking point.

“But Secretary -- Secretary Clinton, even many people who agree with you might say, look, this is very hard to do, especially in today's day and age. There are so many people who say, 'Really? Another government program?' Is that what you're proposing? And at the expense of taxpayer money?"

Clinton responded, appropriately:

"Well, look, you know, when people say that -- it's always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, 'You can't have paid leave, you can't provide health care.' They don't mind having big government to interfere with a woman's right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They're fine with big government when it comes to that. I'm sick of it.  We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, 'big government this, big government that,' that except for what they want to impose on the American people. I know we can afford it, because we're going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done."

The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns.  (In some countries, fathers can participate in the program, too). Only 12 percent of American workers in the private sector get paid family leave from work. These benefits are much more likely to be available to higher-income employees than to low-income workers who may need it the most in order to take time off.  Only 5 percent of the lowest-paid 25 percent of employees get paid family leave, compared to 21 percent of the wealthiest 25 percent.

Not surprisingly, the issue of paid family leave has now emerged as a major distinction between the Democratic and Republican candidates.

At Tuesday night's debate, Clinton said:

“I want to do more to help us balance family and work. I believe in equal pay for equal work for women, but I also believe it's about time we had paid family leave for American families and join the rest of the world.”

Bernie Sanders, who was the earliest and has been the most vocal advocate for paid family leave among the candidates, said:

“When you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have -- we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth. Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Martin O'Malley said:

"My wife, Katie, is here with our four kids. And, man, that was a juggle when we had little kids and -- and keeping jobs and moving forwards. We would be a stronger nation economically if we had paid family leave."

The success of paid family leave is not a matter of opinion.  It is a matter of fact. Like the debate of climate change, the issue of paid family leave is not a matter of dispute except among a handful of fanatics. There are climate science deniers and there are paid family leave deniers. Not surprisingly, the deniers on both issues represent the corporate lobby groups.

Let's look at the evidence.

In February 2005, Patti Phillips sat by her daughter's bedside during the weeks before Stephanie Phillips died of bone cancer. Patti was able to be at her daughter's side the day she died because of the federal law that allows millions of Americans to take family leave without risking their jobs. "You want to be there with your child.... and you don't want to worry about your job," said Phillips, 49, an inventory specialist at Coca-Cola in Atlanta. "The law gives you peace of mind."

The law was the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which was signed into law by the newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton on February 5, 1993 after years of bitter opposition by the Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies. Clinton said that it was time for employers to make basic commitments to American workers so that during those critical times when we must put our family's health first, we shouldn't have to give up our livelihood - and job - to do so. He claimed that, "we all bear the cost when workers are forced to choose between keeping their jobs and meeting their personal and family obligations." The new law, he said, would mean that "American workers will no longer have to choose between the job they need and the family they love."

The FMLA assigned a simple responsibility to businesses with more than 50 employees: give workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for a new baby or ailing family member and let them return to their job. Unfortunately, since it didn't provide paid leave to workers, millions who were eligible weren't able to take advantage of the new law because they couldn't afford the loss of income.

It was, though, a hard-fought and vitally important first step. For millions of workers it has been, and continues to be, a godsend. Workers who used family leave returned to their old jobs and picked up where they left off in skill, earnings and experience; better off economically and with a stronger resume. They faced fewer bankruptcies and relied less on public assistance programs.

Before the law finally passed, business lobbies including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business had defeated family leave bills in Congress for almost a decade. They predicted the worst, calling it a "job killer," an assault on freedom, and an unnecessary government intrusion since businesses know what's best for their workers.

Virginia Lamp (later to become Virginia Thomas after marrying Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) of the Chamber of Commerce called it a "dangerous precedent." Chamber president, Richard Lesher, argued that "most people don't want the federal government to be their personnel administrators." John Sloane Jr., president of the National Federation of Independent Business called family leave benefits "the greatest threats to small business in America." Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-NC) described it as "nothing short of Europeanization - a polite term for socialism."

Future Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner (R-OH) complained that the legislation would "be the demise of some [businesses]." "And as that occurs," he continued "the light of freedom will grow dimmer."

But by the 1990s the new reality of families with two working parents and millions of single parent households produced enough pressure on Republicans that the FMLA passed with bi-partisan support. Nineteen Senate and 40 House Republicans voted yes.

Since then, three states -- California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island -- have taken the extra step to create paid family leave laws so workers don't have to choose between getting paid and taking family medical leave. All three states fund their programs through employee-paid payroll taxes and are administered through their respective disability programs.

In 2002, California was the first state to create a paid family leave insurance program.

The California Chamber of Commerce lobbied vigorously to kill the bill but was unable to stop it. Chamber President Allan Zaremberg described the leave law as a coming disaster for business. "We're opposed to a lot of bills, but this is one of the worst," claimed Zaremberg. A lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business predicted "If it becomes law, it will be the biggest financial burden for small businesses in decades."

Ten years later, an extensive  survey of employers and employees by sociologist Ruth Milkman and economist Eileen Applebaum found that the California law didn't turn out to be the costly "job killer" that business lobbies warned about. In fact, the survey found the leave law actually helped employers with reduced turnover and increased employee loyalty while helping families meet the challenges of working and caring for their children. And research clearly shows that babies do better when their parents can stay home with them for their first few months.

New Jersey passed a paid family leave law in 2008 that offered six weeks off for employees to care for a sick child or parent at two-thirds salary (capped at $595 a week), paid for by a payroll tax. Business lobbies claimed that it would destroy businesses and send them fleeing to fleeing to other nearby states. Employees, they claimed, would abuse the system.

Some claimed it was un-American. Steven Lonegan, then-mayor of Bogota, NJ and executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers front group, called it a "... socialist diktat takes feel-good politics to a new level. The basic argument for this socialist propaganda is the necessity for Big Brother to subsidize an army of breastfeeding single mothers."

As it turns out, New Jersey's paid family leave has been working just fine. As of last year, over 100,000 working people - the vast majority of them women - had taken advantage of the program; more than 80% of them used the leave to bond with and care for infants, according to the state's labor department.  And employers found real benefits too. Caliper Corporation CEO Herb Greenberg called it a "win-win situation" that benefited his workers and his business, noting that 20 of his 22 employees who have taken family leave have returned to work for him.

Last year, Rhode Island began allowing workers to take up to four weeks of paid leave. More than 5,000 people have already taken family leave under that program.  According to an analysis by the Associated Press, "Many workers say they love the program, and employers say it hasn't hurt business as some had feared."

Despite the Chamber's consistent opposition, the Family and Medical Leave Act is a popular law that even conservative Republicans lawmakers have a hard time opposing. In 2008, the FMLA was expanded to allow family members of wounded, ill, or injured service members and veterans to take unpaid leave to care for them. In 2009, the law was extended to cover flight attendants who had been exempted in the 1993 law. The House of Representatives voted unanimously for the expansions.

Every time Congress or state legislatures seek to enact paid family leave policies to allow workers to  afford to take time off during those critical family situations, the Chamber of Commerce (and most Republicans )claim that the sky will fall. The difference is that now an overwhelming majority of Americans support the idea.  Eighty percent of Americans (including 71 percent of Republicans) favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members. Even more (85 percent of all Americans and 77 percent of Republicans) favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to employees who are ill, according to a New York Times/CBS poll released in June.

President Obama during his 2013 inaugural address proclaimed that "The commitments we make to each other--through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security--these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," Mr. Obama said. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Paid family leave also wouldn't make us a nation of takers, but rather a nation of makers - of family, of community, of health and ultimately of prosperity. It strengthens our families, makes us more independent and more able to lift ourselves back up after hard times. And most importantly it makes it possible for Americans to carry out the most meaningful and important of our personal responsibilities -- to care for the health of our families.

On paid family leave and so many other issues, neither Carly Fiorina nor the Chamber of Commerce should have any credibility.  But CNN and other media outlets continue to give them legitimacy by echoing their talking points as if they should be taken seriously. They shouldn't. They are crying wolf.

Dana Bash Named CNN's Chief Political Correspondent

By Donald Cohen

Donald is the founder and executive director of In the Public Interest, a national research and policy non profit advocating for transparency, accountability, efficiency, and shared prosperity in the provision of public goods, services, and assets. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, The New York Times, and other outlets.

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By Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books).

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