JVTA, Hyde, Lynch – the Congressional circus is back in town

In spite of having been primarily focused on my #1000Speak post this week, or perhaps because of it, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the human trafficking bill that is currently stalled in the US Congress (where all legislation is born, and in recent years, much of it dies shortly after).

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act is stalled in the Senate because of the inclusion of Hyde Amendment language in the bill. The Hyde Amendment bars most federal funding for abortion services. I need to reiterate my overall opposition to bills that attempt to address more than one issue at a time. All it does is allow contentious pieces of legislation to either slip in unnoticed, or to be passed simply because it gets attached to a bill that absolutely has to be passed (similar to the attempt made to hold up Homeland Security funding with immigration). In this particular case, Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee approved the bill for the floor vote, without bothering to notice that the Hyde Amendment language had been added. Perhaps it was disingenuous of the Republicans not to note that annual bill had been altered by the additional provision, but to be perfectly honest, it’s a somewhat convoluted bill, but not particularly complex – even I could read it and understand it. The Democrats dropped the ball on this, and are now on somewhat shaky ground in their posturing.

The GOP leadership, and the conservative media outlets, are loudly proclaiming the stalemate to be solely the fault of the Democrats because, obviously, they want to continue funding the abortion industry – whatever the hell that may mean.

Let’s start with the fundamentals of this bill. It isn’t a new piece of legislation, rather it is an extension of a bill originally passed in 2006. This year’s version seeks to increase the amount of money recovered from traffickers in fines and other fees. This money is then used to fund an assortment of law enforcement and victim services. Basic stuff, and it does not criminalize anything that isn’t already a crime, yet sends more of the funding to law enforcement than to victim services. What is does do, though, is codify the need for victim support serves, particularly as it pertains to sexual victims, and to child victims especially. And it ensures that there is funding available to cover these services. I’ve heard the argument made that this bill is unimportant because sex crimes and human trafficking are covered elsewhere in the criminal codes, but I think that the important part here, and the part that is not widely covered elsewhere, is the victims rights aspect, particularly as it pertains to children. It is worth mentioning, though, that some victim advocacy groups would actually prefer to see the law scrapped because it sends too much money to law enforcement, specifies too many special interest-sponsored third parties, and pushes to have military veterans work with child victims over other, possibly better qualified, agencies.

The Hyde Amendment is as old as time at this point – well, nearly as old as the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that legalized abortion under federal law. Attached to appropriations bills since 1976, it is a very creative way to treat abortion as illegal under federal law by preventing federal funds from being used for abortion services except in cases of rape, incest, or serious risk to maternal health (and these exemptions have varied a few times over the years). The interesting logic of this law, and its disproportionate impact on low-income women, isn’t today’s topic. What is of interest now is its impact on the human trafficking legislation, which is reviewed for renewal only once every five years, but the Hyde Amendment itself needs to be renewed annually. By attaching these restrictions to the bill now, the restrictions will last for five years, possibly permanently if not removed, even if the Hyde Amendment should happen to fail to be renewed in any of the intervening years (however unlikely that possibility may be).

At this point, possible workarounds that have been proposed have been deemed unacceptable, and perhaps nothing really changes much for human trafficking victims while the bill is stalled because most of this bill is covered elsewhere. But perhaps that isn’t really the point. Nor is the point that most trafficking victims seeking abortions would probably meet the requirements for federal abortion funding. My reservation with the addition of the language is that it is indicative of the religious conservatives move to erode women’s reproductive rights, and other socially progressive laws, incrementally, so that eventually they will be gone with few people noticing – and those that do notice being labelled a divisive extremists for raising concerns. This impacts of this should not be minimized.

My bigger concern, though, with this debacle in the Senate is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that he will not permit a Senate vote on the nomination of Loretta Lynch as US Attorney General until the human trafficking bill issues have been resolved. We are once again seeing something that is very likely to pass, since Lynch’s nomination is not generally contentious (outside of the more extreme wing of the Republican/Tea Party), being held hostage to something unrelated. Because the children running the legislature are incapable of doing any actual legislating. Or of sharing the playground with other children. And  ‘we the people’ are once again neglected in our legislators quest to score points with the special interests funding their campaigns and writing out laws.

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