WASHINGTON — If ever there was a bill that looked like it would easily be passed in the fiercely partisan U.S. Senate, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (JVTA) was it.
But just as the bill was nearing the finish line, the frail and rare political harmony was shattered. Senate Democrats suddenly altered their tune and have subsequently blocked several attempts to bring the bill to a vote.
The legislation, which aims to support victims of human trafficking and equip preventive efforts by establishing a fund made up of fines collected from convicted traffickers, had several co-sponsors form both parties. Introduced on Jan. 13 by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, JVTA had made it through the Senate judiciary committee without opposition and was reported to the full Senate on Feb. 26.
But then abortion politics entered the picture, blocking the bill’s further advance.
“We were shocked across the board,” said Samantha Vardaman, the senior director of Shared Hope International, a faith-based advocacy group that had been closely involved in JVTA throughout the legislative process. “Every [anti-human trafficking] organization that has been working on this was really quite surprised, because it had been such a bipartisan effort for so long.”
The shift in the Senate hinges on a provision in the JVTA that limits funds collected through the legislation from going towards abortion procedures. Commonly referred to as the Hyde Amendment, similar language has governed spending bills for nearly 40 years, allowing exceptions only in cases in which the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or threatens the life of the mother.
The Hyde language had been included in JVTA from the very first draft. But on March 10, Senate Democrats claimed that they had been unaware of the provision and, as a result, could no longer support the trafficking effort.
Vardaman doesn’t buy that logic and says those involved were aware of the Hyde language from the get-go.
“The Hyde provision was in there, and we all knew it was in there, because we were told it was in there,” she told the Register, adding that the language was in “plain sight” and that “any staffer” reading the bill would’ve come across it.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a leading Democrat co-sponsor of the bill, who is now blocking it from coming to a vote, said one of her staffers was aware of the Hyde Amendment language but didn’t bring it to the Senate or Democratic leadership’s attention until it was out of committee.
Five separate attempts to end debate on the bill and bring it to a vote have failed, with the most recent on March 19 coming up four votes short of the requisite 60. The votes have consistently been split along party lines, although four Democrats have bucked the party line to support moving the bill forward.
“It is unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of Americans are at risk of being trafficked every year, which is why I support this bill,” said Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., in a statement to the Register. “I am also pro-life and have always believed that no federal funds should be used for abortion.”
The Hyde Amendment
The Hyde Amendment, named after its main sponsor, the late Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, is not permanent law. Rather, it’s a so-called “rider” that has been routinely attached in various forms to federal legislation since 1976.
Although the Hyde Amendment is at this point par for the course in congressional funding bills, Senate Democrats claim that the version included in JVTA is an unjustifiable expansion in two ways: The money in question is not collected from taxpayers and is not appropriated by Congress, and it is also not subject to review annually, as a congressional budget bill is.
But Mary Harned, staff counsel for Americans United for Life, said that Hyde Amendment language applies to more than just congressional appropriation of tax dollars, such as executive orders and Medicaid moneys collected from insurance premiums.
“These [JVTA] funds are being collected and dispersed because of federal legislation,” she explained to the Register. “The only reason why these [anti-trafficking] funds exist is because of federal law, so it’s entirely consistent to apply [the Hyde Amendment language] to this fund.”
Harned also dismissed the complaint that JVTA applies the Hyde Amendment over an unprecedented five years, on the grounds that the language should be “permanent statutory law” anyway.
“It’s a waste of Congress’ time to have to fight this battle every year,” she said of the annual debate concerning the inclusion of Hyde Amendment language in legislative spending bills.
On this note, there have been attempts in the Senate at making a compromise. On March 19, Sen. Cornyn introduced a proposal that would have made funds collected through JVTA go through the annual appropriations process, rather than be administered separately. But his proposal was rejected by Senate Democrats.
Harned said this unwillingness to compromise reveals the real reason for the Senate Democrats shift against the bill: strong pressure from Planned Parenthood and other abortion lobbying groups.
“It’s a major goal of the abortion industry to get rid of the Hyde Amendment altogether,” she said. “So any opportunity they have to chip away at this, they’re going to take it.”
Low Priority for Trafficking Victims
In addition to opposing JVTA because of its alleged expansion of Hyde Amendment language, some Senate Democrats have also argued more broadly that victims of trafficking shouldn’t have the abortion option restricted after surviving sexual exploitation.
“They’ve had every choice taken from them,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a March 19 statement. “And now, if they survive, if they escape, we should not put limits on what health services they can seek.”
But according to Vardaman of Shared Hope International, Leahy and other Democrats are making a bigger deal of questions of access to abortion than are actually faced in reality. That’s not only because of the exceptions already included in Hyde Amendment language, but also because abortion services are not a predominant concern of the anti-trafficking community.
“[Access to abortion] hasn’t been something expressed at the many, many meetings, working groups and sessions [of advocacy groups and trafficking survivors] that Shared Hope has held,” she revealed.
Vardaman also bristled at suggestions that inclusion of the Hyde Amendment language somehow invalidates JVTA and its efforts to bring about justice to trafficking victims.
“When I hear that inclusion of the Hyde Amendment would make this bill meaningless, that’s upsetting,” she said. “There are so many things in this bill that are important and bring justice to victims of trafficking.”
“This bill is not about abortion,” she added.
Vardaman also noted that inclusion of the Hyde Amendment language has not divided the anti-trafficking community, which includes more than 200 organizations of various political and philosophical persuasions.
“The bottom line is that nothing has changed for Shared Hope, and nothing has changed for the many, many organizations that have been supporting this bill since day one,” she stated. “I have not witnessed any slight of support for this bill. If anything, this has made the advocacy community more resolved to see this bill passed.”
‘Qualified Support’ From the USCCB
The JVTA is also receiving “qualified support” from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), according to Kevin Appleby, the director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs. Although the bishops’ anti-trafficking efforts focus primarily on care for survivors, education of communities and proper legal protections for foreign-born victims, Appleby says the JVTA is “a positive step forward.”
Regarding the current impasse in the Senate, Appleby argued that it’s misguided to equate justice for trafficking victims with access to abortion.
“The Church is in the business of protecting life and dignity in all its stages,” he told the Register. “With regards to this trafficking bill, both of those goals can and should be achieved.”
Appleby added that the current debate gives the bishops the opportunity to highlight the Church’s teaching on the dignity of life in all circumstances, from conception to death.
“In this situation, with this bill, we’re trying to protect victims of trafficking, a horrific crime, but we’re also trying to protect the unborn.”
And, although the JVTA as it’s currently written does allow for select cases in which funding can be used for abortion services, Appleby noted that there is nothing in the law that states that it must fund abortions “proactively.”
“Administrations can interpret it that way, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t fight that interpretation going forward with any administration in office,” he said.
Appleby also noted that the bishops would be unable to support JVTA if an attempt wasn’t made “to restrict funding for abortion to the greatest extent possible.”
“Given the circumstance, the Hyde Amendment is the best we can do to protect the unborn in this legislation,” he said. “If for some reason it’s weakened, then we will oppose the bill.”
Disappointed but Hopeful
For advocates of trafficking victims like Vardaman who have worked for years to pass legislation like JVTA, the current paralysis in the Senate has brought its share of disappointment.
“This bill has been a heartbreaker,” she said. “We’ve felt close to the finish line several times. Northing is really safe anymore.”
Still, she said the advocacy community remains hopeful. The fact that the Senate continues to work on compromises and add additional anti-trafficking provisions to JVTA is an indication that it isn’t dead in the water.
Vardaman urged the senators delaying passage of the bill to “find a solution, because there is one.”
“Put the needs of victims and survivors ahead of whatever lobbying interest is pressing you one way or another,” she said. “We’re talking about modern-day slavery. This is not the right time or place or bill to hang your [abortion] position on.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.