Only 3 percent of the American public believes government-mandated family and medical leave should be a national priority for Congress, according to a 1989 Washington Post/ABC News poll.

Yet, certain lawmakers are pursuing such a law in a misguided attempt to show concern for the American family. If they sincerely want to help our families, they ought to spend more time seeking answers to our education, housing, drug and health-care problems.Another poll, by Gallup, found parental leave to be at the very bottom of a list of benefits considered valuable by 1,000 surveyed employees. And almost 90 percent of respondents to still another survey (1991 Penn & Schoen) said employee benefits are a matter that should be decided between employee and employer, rather than mandated by the federal government.

Clearly, some lawmakers want us to think this is a law we all want, when in reality they are making a great show of an issue that does not merit national legislation.

Surveys taken by the bill's proponents, aimed at showing the number of employers who offer such a benefit, are terribly misleading. The truth is employers are increasingly providing this benefit; where there is no formal company policy, employees often work out an informal leave agreement with their employer.

In addition, many polls ask employers if they offer a "parental leave" policy without counting the substitution of short-term disability leave, which many employees use for the birth of a child. In fact, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 ensures that companies treat pregnancy as they would any other temporary disability.

Recent research by the Small Business Administration revealed that most businesses provide some type of family leave. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the SBA stated: "In the absence of any government mandate . . . between 74 and 90 percent of all businesses are already addressing the problem."

Parental leave is an excellent benefit, and the National Association of Manufacturers strongly encourages companies to provide it where possible. But we are fundamentally opposed to a federal mandate. An across-the-board requirement ignores the unique circumstances of individual companies and their employees and often does more harm than good.

Employers who are forced to institute a parental leave policy often are compelled to eliminate or scale back other benefits that many workers may prefer, such as fully paid dental care or tuition reimbursement. The Penn & Schoen poll showed that the majority of Americans are not willing to sacrifice any of their current benefits for one they may never use.

Employers must be allowed to design benefits packages according to the needs expressed by their employees - not according to what some lawmakers in Washington want to impose on all workers. As the number of women in the work force continues to grow, the market will force employers to offer more benefits and incentives geared toward family needs.

Six years ago, when the first parental leave bill was introduced, the corporate benefits picture was quite different. Since then, mothers have returned to the workplace in droves, causing employers to redesign their benefits package to help workers cope with family/job responsibilities. Nevertheless, advocates of this outdated legislation continue to ignore the growing number of creative initiatives already taken by employers.

How can Congress say it places a high priority on U.S. competitiveness and economic growth and in the same breath call for government-mandated parental leave?

These types of federally mandated benefits erode the flexibility companies need to thrive in today's fiercely competitive international marketplace. Why not focus our energies on creating more jobs and prosperity, instead of trying to make a political statement?