Senators, baby-sitting help zap a nomination

MIKE ROYKO

January 22, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

There they sat, all those distinguished United States senators. Hour after hour, they poked and probed the mind of the person nominated to be the highest ranking law enforcement official in the United States.

And what were they talking about most of the time? Baby-sitting.

That's what the Senate confirmation hearing for Zoe Baird boiled down to -- how a working mother goes about finding a trustworthy baby sitter.

Once in a while, a senator would toss in a question about something else, such as her qualifications to run the Justice Department, which includes about 90,000 people.

But most of the time, they wanted every detail of how Baird and her law-professor husband employed a Peruvian couple as live-in domestic help: the wife as a baby sitter and the husband as a driver.

It was a big deal because the Peruvians are illegal aliens. Or "undocumented workers," as the politically correct crowd suggests that we call them.

And there is a law against hiring undocumented workers. So that meant that Zoe Baird and her husband broke the law, which she readily admitted.

It was an even bigger deal because she did not immediately pay Social Security tax for her employees. Although she has since paid it -- plus exorbitant penalties -- that, too, was a violation of the law, which she also admitted.

Of course, we aren't talking serious crime here. She didn't mug anyone on the street, peddle a kilo of heroin or gun down a child in a drive-by shooting. She didn't even drive while half loaded.

But listening to the senators scratch at minor legal points, you would have thought that the baby-sitter hire was the crime of the century.

On the other hand, if you talk to mothers who work and hire someone to tend the kids, you start to understand why Zoe Baird skirted the law.

It appears that many working American women are in the same position that American car buyers were a few years ago: The domestic products aren't as good as the imports.

"I think I know what she went through," one professional woman told me. "I advertised for a live-in sitter. Most of the American women who called me started off by asking how much it paid, how many days off they'd get, how many holidays, whether I paid for overtime and what the other fringe benefits were. Then they'd tell me that they didn't want to walk up stairs, or they wouldn't do any housework, even putting stuff in the dishwasher, and what days they wanted off and what hours they expected to work.

"That was before I had a chance to ask them if they knew how to change a diaper or dial an emergency phone number. That's why I ended up hiring an illegal. I'm not going to pay someone to change diapers and have them act like they belong to the Teamsters."

Another told me this story: "I was looking for a live-in. The pay was good, and it included a very nice, fully furnished garden apartment in my home. I swear, most of the American women who applied acted like I was imposing on them. One of them actually asked if I'd mind if her boyfriend lived with her. I told her that was out of the question. And she got indignant. When I told another one that she might have to work some Saturdays and take a weekday off, she said that was out of the question because her weekends were 'structured.' That was the word she used. Of course, she couldn't spell it."

We're at a time when more women are working than ever before, except maybe during World War II. Some are single mothers. Some are married and in need of the extra income.

There aren't enough day-care centers or other facilities for their kids. And to hire someone without getting in trouble with the law, you almost have to have a degree in personnel management and tax accounting.

If the Senate testimony told us anything, it wasn't that Zoe Baird is some sort of fringe criminal. It told us that the federal laws and bureaucracy can turn almost anyone into a law-breaker.

Yes, Ms. Baird hired a couple of illegals. The woman took care of the child, the husband spent a few hours a day driving Ms. Baird to and from her powerhouse law job.

If you include room and board, she was paying them about $30,000 a year, which isn't bad for unskilled work. In the meantime, she was trying to get one of them the precious green card.

Despite the tone of some of the senators' questions, she didn't chain them in a corner of the basement at night or make them pick grapes for 5 cents a bushel.

While the senators pondered the enormity of Ms. Baird's crime, some undocumented workers were flying or boating large quantities of cocaine into this country. We can't stop that. The undocumented drug merchants are armed with automatic military weapons, which they use to kill rival gangs or hapless bystanders. We can't stop that. Other foreign profiteers are hiring lobbyists to buy the votes of senators, and we can't stop that.

But while that was going on, the senators and a lot of people who can't handle a successful woman like Zoe Baird cluck-clucked about an offense that isn't as serious as driving under the influence.

The same committee that was brain-addled in dealing with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill has now boldly faced up to the issue of baby-sitting.

How the mighty have fallen. Except they weren't mighty then, and they aren't much better now.

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