Dana Ettinger, JHU:
Perhaps it’s because we’ve become so accustomed to hearing about gridlock in Congress, but when I hear about anything with bipartisan support I tend to root for it, regardless of content. When it’s something genuinely good, with real potential to help people, all the better. And of course, when partisanship ultimately sinks it, I am that much more disgusted with Congress. The past few weeks, Congress had a chance to help the victims of human trafficking with the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (H.R. 181, S.178). This was a good bill, which would provide financial support to police departments and federal agencies working to deter and crack down on child trafficking and child pornography. It would also set up a fund using penalties from these crimes to provide services to victims of trafficking. Coming out of committee, this bill had near-universal bipartisan support. So what went wrong?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is politics. All of the feel-good bipartisanship occurred before the Democrats discovered the Hyde Amendment language the Republicans had added to the bill. The Hyde Amendment is a provision that prevents federal funding from being used to pay for abortions. Once the discovery of the amendment had been made, the Democrats’ support for the bill plummeted, unsurprising given that the Hyde Amendment language was completely unnecessary. Not only does it practically guarantee the bill’s failure, Hyde Amendments are normally used to prevent taxpayer funds from being used for abortions. However, the Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund established by the Act, which would provide services to victims, would be funded by penalties imposed on those convicted of “peonage, slavery, or trafficking in persons; sexual abuse; sexual exploitation and other abuse of children; transportation for illegal sexual activity; or human smuggling in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” (S. 178) Criminal penalties are not taxpayer dollars – all of the Republican propaganda about public opposition to taxpayer-funded abortion is irrelevant in this case, as that is not how these funds would be obtained.
Following the Democrats’ drop in support, the Republicans immediately began a smear campaign accusing their counterparts of trying to sink a bipartisan bill for political reasons. One article in The Federalist (http://thefederalist.com/2015/03/18/human-trafficking-filibuster-proves-abortion-lobby-controls-democrats/) accused the Democrats of being completely controlled by the pro-choice lobby. This all seems like politics as usual, but there’s something amiss: could the Republicans really not have foreseen the backlash the abortion provision would provoke?
There are very few issues in politics more contentious and polarizing as abortion, a fact of which the Republicans are well aware. Anything that reaches the floor of Congress that even so much as mentions the word “abortion” or women’s reproductive rights is liable to foster heated debate both on the floor and in the media. It is a very common campaign issue, as well as one of the largest divisions between social liberals and conservatives. It seems naïve to believe that including an anti-abortion provision in the bill would negatively impact the bipartisan support, yet Republicans are acting as if the Democrats’ outrage is completely surprising and unwarranted. This seems like either absurd naïveté or a very cold and calculated political move.
Despite the jokes of liberal pundits, the Republican leadership is not stupid, making the former explanation unlikely. If this was indeed a calculated political move, the Republicans should be ashamed of themselves. Helping the victims of human trafficking, specifically children and victims of sex trafficking, should not be used as a political chess piece. The superior Republican PR machine has generated strong ill will toward the Democrats over this mess, so if that was their goal they should congratulate themselves on a job well done. The controversy over the provision has also spilled into other matters, notably the approval of the new nominee for Attorney General. Meanwhile, a bill designed to help some of the most vulnerable members of society will die on the Senate floor, along with any faith I had in Congress to rise above political maneuvering to help people. The greatest irony lies in the article mentioned earlier that accused the Democrats of being dependent on the pro-choice lobby – if nothing else, this episode proves just how reliant the Republicans are on their pro-life Religious Right base.
This fight is not about abortion rights or reproductive rights. This fight is not about helping victims of human trafficking. This fight is a political move with devastating consequences. The Republicans want to show their social conservative base that they will fight for their issues, and if they can smear the Democrats and gain an excuse to block one of Obama’s nominees, all the better. But while they win a small victory on the political battlefield, real victims of trafficking are the losers. The Senate Democrats would pass this bill in a second without the Hyde Amendment language. It’s up to the Republicans to do the right thing and help people instead of pandering to political supporters.