Politics & Policy

Abuse of Power

The wrong way to help victims of domestic violence.

In Washington, it’s often tough to stand on principle. Supporters of limited government can have a particularly difficult time. Congressional hearings that showcase children with leukemia or homeless widows can make opponents of federal funding of cancer research or subsidized housing seem like ogres.

But politics is a job, after all, and just because a task isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not right. Members of Congress have a responsibility to preserve resources for matters that truly must be handled at the federal level, such as national defense, and to prevent unnecessary government involvement in private matters. At the same time, defenders of limited government must demonstrate that a “hands-off” policy for Washington doesn’t spell indifference to hardship.

This week, policymakers will have the opportunity to put their skills to test. Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.) plans to offer an amendment, known as “The Paul and Sheila Wellstone Domestic Violence Prevention Act,” that would expand federal-employment protections for victims of domestic violence. Her legislation purports to make it easier for sufferers of domestic abuse to escape their tormentors and obtain treatment. The senator makes this sound like common sense: “We must not trap victims of domestic violence in abusive relationships because they don’t have the financial means to leave. We cannot allow them to be further victimized because of their circumstances.”

Yet Congress must look beyond the proposed legislation’s sympathetic title and consider how it will affect taxpayers and businesses, not just victims showcased by supporters. After all, while members of Congress like to take credit for helping the abused when voting to help people, they are being charitable on someone else’s dime.

Senator Murray’s proposal would create an entirely new leave law, much like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to require businesses to allow victims of abuse to take up to 30 days of unscheduled leave, which could be taken all at once or intermittently. Employees would be allowed to access paid leave already provided by the employer immediately and take any remaining time as unpaid leave. Unlike FMLA, which affects only employers with more than 50 employees, this new regulation would extend to employers with as few as fifteen workers and apply to part-time and temporary employees on their first day of work.

Granting leave may not sound like much of a burden on businesses, but allowing workers to take off unscheduled periods can be disruptive and act as a drag on productivity. Of course, even during periods of unpaid leave, businesses would have to continue paying benefits, such as health insurance. Businesses would also face new compliance costs due to the regulations.

While policymakers who support this amendment will focus on clear-cut cases of domestic abuse, business operators know that many employees will seek time off under questionable circumstances. Consider that under FMLA, the Department of Labor has already issued conflicting guidance on whether a cold, flu, or headache constitutes a “serious” health condition. At first, these maladies weren’t considered “serious,” but later opinions suggested that they may cross that threshold. Such ambiguity has led to court cases and confusion among human resource departments. Indeed, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey, half of human resource professionals indicated that they had granted FMLA requests that they believed were illegitimate. A third were aware of employee complaints about coworkers abusing the policy.

Senator Murray’s legislation would create more potential problems. Under FMLA, employees can be asked to produce third-party verification of their illness. Under the proposed domestic abuse policy, however, employers would be unable to require certification; they would have to rely on employees’ sworn testimony. The term “abuse” is also broadly defined and extends to harm suffered by a “family or household member,” including “a spouse, former spouse, parent, son or daughter, or person residing or formerly residing in the same dwelling unit.” It’s not hard to see the potential for another kind of abuse here.

We can all agree that good businesses should be understanding and helpful to abused employees. The question before Congress is not whether businesses ought to provide latitude for those suffering, but whether the federal government should dictate how businesses handle these situations. By focusing only on the need for flexibility for employees, Congress fails to recognize that businesses need flexibility, too. Business owners are often caricatured as greedy misers, able but unwilling to provide greater compensation to employees. But most are good people struggling to turn a profit. Each year, more than a half million U.S. businesses open and just as many close down. New regulations like those Senator Murray proposes make it harder for businesses to survive and hire more workers.

It is easy to vote for “compassionate” regulation and issue a press release trumpeting concern for victims of domestic abuse. But members of Congress should take note: Spending taxpayer money and passing on costs to business is not an act of charity; it is an abuse of federal power.

Carrie Lukas is the director of policy for the Independent Women’s Forum.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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