THE Clinton administration is sick to death of it. The president ran on the economy, but all anyone wants to talk about these days is who's taking care of politicians' kids.
So it seems fitting to take a break from the witch hunts surrounding who paid what when to the sitter to discuss a pressing economic issue.
The United States needs a national child care system for all families, from the poor to the well-to-do. If the withdrawal of two talented women lawyers from consideration for service in the Clinton administration because of baby-sitter stuff ends in a welter of class wars and gender hostilities, we will have missed an opportunity to begin a process that should have started two decades ago.
By 1995, two-thirds of the women with preschool children are expected to be working outside their homes. Yet child care has never been a major political issue.
And the most depressing thing about the debate these last few weeks has been the defeatism of the dialogue: I have to make do with inconvenient, expensive, even unsafe child care arrangements -- why shouldn't you?
Recently, the president talked about wanting to immunize all American children. If we had a system of early childhood care, well-baby programs would be an obvious part of that care.
Last week the president talked about wanting to get people off welfare. Women on welfare will tell you one of the greatest impediments to getting off is child care and its cost. "It's the biggest problem in our lives," one mother of three said of herself and her friends.
At the York Street Project in Jersey City, N.J., which offers high school classes to women who have dropped out and housing to those who are homeless, the nuns who run the place say it took them only a year to realize that child care would be the linchpin of their efforts, that women couldn't show up for classes or make it to work if they didn't have a safe and stable place to leave their kids.
Our late entry into the world of child care policy gives us plenty of other national programs to consider. In France, nearly all children between the ages of 3 and 5 attend free preprimary schools. A third of all younger children are cared for in licensed and monitored family day-care homes or day-care centers.
In the United States women frequently set up family day care in their own homes with no training or licensing. The government family day-care system in France includes local hub offices that provide equipment, activities and oversight and a nurse-director who hires and trains providers and matches them with children. Parents pay on a sliding scale based on income.
The system is so good that a group of American experts studied French facilities in 1989. One of them was Hillary Rodham Clinton, then chair of the Children's Defense Fund, now the obvious person to spearhead child care policy. Ms. Clinton is already working on health care, but maybe it's time to start thinking of child care as a subset of health care, providing for the physical, mental and emotional health of many of America's children.
We know what we don't want: We don't want a big government child care monolith. We need a range of options, from corporate centers and benefit packages to family day care and government subsidies. We need community centers and community information banks about sitters.
Where's the money to come from? people will ask. But a better question is where the money's now going. Businesses are losing billions of dollars every year in lost employee time because of child care problems. Government is paying billions in public assistance to women who say a major impediment to going back to work is finding child care they can afford.
And the biggest little cash economy in America turns out to be baby-sitting, not just for briefcase moms with immigrant sitters but for family day-care providers who don't report their income and for women on welfare who supplement their checks with baby-sitting money.
But this is more than an economic issue. America pays lip service to liking kids, but you can't prove it by how they're treated or the priority given their care. It may take some time to find answers for us on this issue. But it's time, past time, that we started asking the questions.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.