As America faces a mounting transportation crisis — the disruption of shipping supply chains — Jim Geraghty asked yesterday exactly what it is that Joe Biden’s “Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force” has been doing since Biden named it in June. We then got a partial answer that has people up in arms at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, one of the leaders of the task force:
They didn’t previously announce it, but Buttigieg’s office told West Wing Playbook that the secretary has actually been on paid leave since mid-August to spend time with his husband, Chasten, and their two newborn babies. “For the first four weeks, he was mostly offline except for major agency decisions and matters that could not be delegated,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. “He has been ramping up activities since then.” As he does that, Buttigieg will “continue to take some time over the coming weeks to support his husband and take care of his new children,” the spokesperson added…
Buttigieg’s time away to help care for his children is the latest example of paid leave for new parents becoming more common in the United States, even at the highest levels of government. Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget SHALANDA YOUNG is pregnant and is planning to take “time away from the office to be with her daughter after she’s born in the next few weeks,” according to an OMB spokesperson. Sen. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-Ill.), the first senator ever to give birth in office, took 12 weeks maternity leave when her daughter was born in 2018, though she famously appeared on the Senate floor with the newborn to cast a vote…In the past, Cabinet secretaries felt compelled to come back sooner. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development JULIÁN CASTRO took about a “week or so” of leave after his child was born, his spokesperson told us.
There are four reasons why Buttigieg is, and should be, under fire for this.
First, Buttigieg is a cabinet secretary. That is a senior management position, on par with being a corporate CEO. There are all sorts of nice things that come with being senior management — good pay, lots of perks, publicity, obsequious underlings. But the tradeoffs are typically that, in return, senior managers are asked to put in more time, get away from the job less easily, and lack the job security sometimes granted to ordinary workers. That’s the deal; it’s what you get when the buck stops with you. Even if being away for eight weeks is reasonable for a secretary, a janitor, or a mid-level bureaucrat in the Transportation Department, it really is pushing it for the man in charge to just go away for that long. A private company would be well within its rights to demand that its CEO come back faster than that, even if it offered a more generous maternity or paternity policy to its lower-level employees.
Second, the disruption of supply chains really is a major problem, regardless of how bad you think it may be. The administration thinks that it is one within Buttigieg’s jurisdiction, hence his position on the task force. Just because you can take paternity leave in normal circumstances doesn’t mean you should take every last day you’re entitled to without any regard to what is happening in your job — especially if that job is a senior management role at the nationwide level.
Third, the whole controversy raises the question of why we even have a secretary of transportation. While it appears that Buttigieg was asleep at the switch and that administration policies made things worse, it is a fair enough defense that there actually is not a whole lot that the Department of Transportation can do to solve the problem. If Buttigieg’s defenders are going to claim that his extended absence is not that important, then how can they also say that the job upgrades him to presidential timber from being the guy who Biden once mocked for installing “decorative brick” and “colorful lights” in South Bend, Ind. It is also fair to question whether maybe we would do just fine if the secretary of transportation left the job and was never replaced. And, for that matter, it is fair to ask why the same media that conducted a daily watch when Melania Trump wasn’t seen in public for three weeks somehow failed to even ask where the secretary of transportation was for two entire months.
Fourth, Buttigieg is a man. He’s not a mother who gave birth and is breastfeeding a child. He’s not even assisting a mother who gave birth and is breastfeeding a child. This is not about Buttigieg being gay, but about his being a man whose physical burden simply is not the same as a woman’s when a child is brought into the world. You can argue in general, as a matter of policy, that men should get the same leave after birth that a woman gets, and that this should take place whether or not those men live with the birth mother of the child. But when you ask what amount of time it is reasonable for a senior executive to take during a crisis, it of course is relevant that he didn’t give birth. Maternity leave originated to reflect three basic realities. One, a woman needs a certain amount of time to recover physically and emotionally from the demands of giving birth, an experience that has no parallel for men. New mothers go through significant natural hormonal changes as part of that process; they may be susceptible to postpartum depression, which is also not a comparable issue for men. Two, new mothers often breastfeed their children, and this places particular demands on them physically. Three, we recognize the value of new mothers bonding with their children. Four, there is a ton of work to be done with a newborn, and then some with twins.
Over time, paternity leave has expanded, if not caught up everywhere with maternity leave — and that’s fine. I got time off when my third child was born, whereas I had to take vacation time with my first two. The average woman takes, according to one study done in 2005, ten weeks of maternity leave after giving birth. A 2017 Pew study found that “the median length of leave for mothers after the birth or adoption of a child is 11 weeks, compared with one week for fathers.” Part of the recognition of paternity leave was as much for mothers as for fathers: All the things that new moms go through also mean they need more help. But the first two big items on the list — recovery from childbirth and breastfeeding — don’t matter when there is no birth mother in the house. Does that mean that adoptive parents such as the Buttigieg family should not get maternity or paternity leave? Of course not. But it is simple common-sense recognition of reality for people to notice that Pete Buttigieg is as far removed as it is possible for a new parent to be from the core purposes for which parental leave was created in the first place, plus he is the family breadwinner earning a cabinet-secretary salary and undoubtedly can afford to hire professional help in the event of a work crisis. It is artificial to ask people watching politics to not notice things that are real and obvious and would matter to a family outside of the world of Beltway power brokers.
So, yes: A senior executive taking two full months out of the office during a major crisis in the job under the jurisdiction of his phony-baloney cabinet department is a legitimate story. And when you talk about that story, people are reasonably going to notice that the senior executive in question isn’t a woman who just gave birth.