We are getting a lot of lessons these days about how Congress and the Constitution ought to work. My new talk-radio friend Ollie North says the Congress is "no longer the kind of representative government the Founding Fathers intended it to be." If Ollie's Republican friends don't succeed in bringing the Congress back to the glory days of gentleman farmer/legislator, it won't be for lack of trying. Their methods might make some but not all) of the Founding Fathers proud: Ram through legislation and get the job done in the morning so citizen legislators can get back to plowing the fields in the afternoon.
In this mood, there is something almost refreshing about a book on a bill that Congress took a decade to pass: the Family and Medical Leave Act. The bill, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, guarantees Americans up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work to care for newborn children or sick relatives. It is one of the most popular bills in the last decade - in 1991, 76 percent of Americans approved of the bill - and yet it wound its way through six Congresses, countless "final" votes, and two vetoes by George Bush over the course of 10 years. Elving, the political editor of Congressional Quarterly, does a masterful job of charting each twist and turn in the bill's evolution into law, reminding us of the effort representative democracy can demand, even for an idea whose time has come.
The saga of the Family and Medical Leave Act began in 1984 when a federal judge ruled that a California law requiring a company to grant four months of disability leave to a pregnant female employee violated federal statutes requiring equal treatment of men and women in the workplace. Howard Berman, who had steered the law through the California legislature, was now a U.S. congressman. Berman wanted a federal law based on the California model and searched for ways to make the law resistant to court challenges.
The coalition-building began immediately. Berman first turned to Donna Lenhoff of the Women's Legal Defense Fund for help. Lenhoff suggested a key shift that reduced the prospect of court challenges, but even more important, gradually lured some House conservatives under the "Family Leave" tent. By protecting the job rights of anyone who had to take leave to care for a disabled or ill spouse, child, or aging parent, in addition to newborns, the bill would not be considered a "women's bill" but a "family bill." Over time, Democratic Representatives Pat Schroeder...