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Battle Over Paid Sick Days in Covid-19 Response Bill Shows What’s Wrong with Campaign Finance System

The absence of adequate paid sick leave benefits has likely worsened the spread of Covid-19.

April 16, 2020

As part of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Congress passed legislation that provides paid sick leave benefits to many workers who were not previously covered. But even with this new law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the United States still lags far behind the 179 other countries where permanent paid sick leave is the norm. The new law fails to adequately respond to the current public health crisis. Not only are the paid sick leave provisions temporary, but the law also includes exemptions for businesses with less than 50 or more than 500 employees, leaving out millions of American workers. 

The absence of adequate paid sick leave protections has likely made an already dangerous pandemic much worse. Paid sick days have been proven to significantly lower the transmission of infection in workplaces, because without them, people are more likely both to go to work while contagious and to send their children to school sick.

To better understand the ongoing debate over paid sick leave, it is necessary to take a closer look at the outsized influence of wealthy donors and special interest groups on who wins elections and what elected officials prioritize once in office. The way campaigns are funded in the United States desperately needs reform. The current system does not serve the interests of working Americans, stalling progress on critical policies like paid sick leave.

Early drafts of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act proposed more expansive paid sick leave measures, including a permanent benefit. But as news broke of these developments, organizations that represent corporate interests voiced their opposition. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, penned a letter cautioning Congress against pushing through “a federal, one-size-fits-all, permanent leave mandate.”

The Chamber of Commerce has been one of the groups that has most aggressively exploited federal campaign finance rules, which have become more lax due to court decisions like Citizens United. In 2018, the chamber ranked third in dollars spent on federal elections by non-disclosing outside spending groups at nearly $11 million — much of it in the form of so-called dark money with the ultimate source of spending unknown.

Spending by the chamber and other outside groups was critical to winning Republicans their Senate majority in 2014. The following year, one newly elected senator, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, told the group at one of its events, “Without your support . . . I think it’s very doubtful I’d be sitting here as your U.S. senator.”

The chamber was hardly the only group to lobby against paid sick leave proposals in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The National Federation of Independent Business, an interest group that has bankrolled campaign ads, suggested it might use floor votes on the bill to influence their legislator scorecard, a tool the group has previously used to determine campaign contributions. Meanwhile, representatives of major energy companies, which have been prolific election spenders, urged the Trump administration to oppose “any sweeping paid sick leave policy.” Other corporate interests, like McDonald’s, which actively contributes to candidates on both sides of the aisle, also took advantage of White House connections to caution against a mandate.

This is not the first time politically active business groups have wielded their influence in Washington to stall paid sick leave proposals. In 2007, for instance, when Congress considered legislation that included paid sick leave among other labor protections, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce representative threatened an “all-out war” in opposition to the policy.

Public health experts recognize campaign money as an obstacle to securing paid sick leave legislation. Jody Heymann, a professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health, identified the U.S. campaign finance system as a root cause of why the United States continues to lag behind the rest of the world on paid sick leave, noting that “[t]he ability [to make] very large corporate contributions plays a much more substantial role in our elections than in other countries.”

This ongoing fight over paid sick leave reflects a political system that is more responsive to big election spenders than to working people. In fact, one study revealed that donors were at least three times more likely to get a meeting with senior congressional staff than those who described themselves as “local constituents.” 

Even lawmakers who want to focus on the concerns of their constituents find themselves far more exposed to the perspectives of wealthy donors who control whether they can get elected. As Connecticut senator Chris Murphy observed, wealthy donors “have fundamentally different problems than other people . . . And so you’re hearing a lot about problems that bankers have and not a lot of problems that people who work at the mill in Thomaston, Connecticut, have.” With these sorts of pressures, it is unsurprising that when wealthy business groups take issue with a policy, Washington responds.

Some cities and states have improved the odds for ambitious legislation like paid sick leave by changing how campaigns are funded. In 2011, for example, Connecticut passed paid sick leave, but not without a fight from the state’s chamber of commerce. The legislation had been stalled in part due to opposition from the then-governor and House speaker, both of whom received campaign contributions from the chamber. But the implementation of Connecticut’s public financing program, in 2008 for legislative candidates and in 2010 for gubernatorial candidates, changed the state’s political landscape. Public financing meant that candidates could be “competitive in a race … without compromising on an issue like paid sick days.” When publicly financed candidates won races for governor and the legislature, they were able to prioritize paid sick leave legislation without feeling beholden to corporate donors —and Connecticut became the first state to sign such a bill into law.

What happened in Connecticut shows how democracy reform can help advance policies that impact the  wellbeing of millions of Americans. Publicly financed elections, for example, allow candidates and elected officials to spend less time courting big donors and more time focusing on their constituents and the issues that matter most to them. Reforms like public financing, stronger contribution limits, and increased transparency already have considerable public support. In fact, those reforms were all included in H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, a bill passed by the House last year.

The failure of the U.S. political system to respond adequately to the Covid-19 crisis underscores the importance of reforming our democracy, including fixing how elections are funded. The health and safety of millions of American workers depends on it.