New Hope for Anti-Human-Trafficking Bill
By Emily Cadei, CQ Roll Call
Published on February 1, 2013 in CQ Roll Call
Lawmakers and activists are gearing up for another push to pass popular legislation reauthorizing U.S. programs to combat human trafficking, which stalled in the last Congress.
The same roadblocks — political divisions over family planning services and Republican concerns about costs — again threaten to derail the measure. But Democrats and advocates working to stop forced labor, sexual slavery and other forms of trafficking think they may have a trump card this time in Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who they hope can help bridge those gaps in much the same way he is attempting to do on immigration.
Rubio has made human trafficking one of his signature foreign policy issues and with his credibility on the line — and the 2016 presidential campaign on the horizon — Democrats and other supporters of the original legislation are hoping he will invest some of his political capital to get naysayers in his own party on board.
Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is working with Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, on a draft of the reauthorization legislation, which the two are expected to introduce in the coming weeks.
The bill is expected to be very similar to the trafficking reauthorization introduced in the 112th Congress. That legislation, known formally as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act Reauthorization, had 56 cosponsors, including 15 Republicans. But when Senate Democrats attempted to expedite passage of the bill in December — via a process known as “hotlining” — Tom Coburn, R-Okla., objected.
Coburn’s issues with the legislation have to do with costs and, as his staff put it in a 28-page memo circulated to colleagues in 2011, a “growing bureaucracy of anti-trafficking programs that is wasteful, mismanaged, and duplicative.”
Coburn confirmed last week that he opposed passage of the legislation last year and would continue to do so this Congress if those problems were not addressed.
“I haven’t had any conversations with anybody, so the same concerns are still there,” Coburn said last week of the new legislation in the works.
The biggest problem for advocates of the reauthorization, however, remains the fact that it has been sucked into the political vortex of health care, abortion and birth control.
Until the 112th Congress, the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (PL 106-386) had been unanimously reauthorized three times. In October 2012, however, the Health and Human Services Department decided not to renew its contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for trafficking victims’ services, due to the bishops’ refusal to cover reproductive health expenses. That raised the ire of House Republicans, who deemed the decision yet another example of the Obama administration’s “war on religion.”
Longtime anti-trafficking champion Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., yanked his companion measure to the Senate reauthorization and introduced in its stead legislation that included a conscience clause and moved oversight of the trafficking grants program from HHS to the Justice Department.
The Senate has thus far avoided getting embroiled in the family planning controversy and is aiming to keep it that way.
Activists were buoyed by the fact that the objections in December were cost-related, rather than over abortion, because they think those will be easier to resolve. Adding Rubio as an original cosponsor to Leahy’s bill would give them hope they can continue to neutralize some of the most divisive issues, but Democratic boosters have signaled that it will be up to Rubio to do the leg work.
Rubio, himself, remains vague on how exactly he aims to bring the sides together. A co-sponsor, but not an original sponsor, of the 2011 bill, he has been vocal about the evils of human trafficking and the need to reauthorize U.S. human trafficking laws, which lay out ground rules for justice sector efforts to go after traffickers and social services for victims. The 2000 law has since become a template for additional international efforts.
To mark Human Rights Day in December, Rubio gave an impassioned speech about the problem of trafficking on the Senate floor.
“It’s hard to imagine that today, in the 21st century, that there are slaves in the world. It’s even harder to believe that there are slaves in the United States…. In fact, there is no major city in the United States that does not have an element of human trafficking and human slavery within its confines,” he said. “I think it’s important to understand that, that that exists, that it is real, that it is happening.”
He noted that one of the key actions Congress can take to help prevent it is reauthorizing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
“Hopefully we can finish that before the end of this year, but if we can’t, I hope early in the next Congress we’ll address it,” Rubio said at the time.
In an interview last week, Rubio again reiterated his desire to enact human trafficking legislation as soon as possible.
“We want to get this done, this is a big problem and we want to be sure we remain on the forefront of it,” the junior Florida senator said, adding that he expects a new bill to emerge “in the next couple of weeks.”
Rubio acknowledged that “there are a few groups concerned about some of the language in there,” but predicted that “we can work through it.” In particular, issues raised by faith-based groups “are legitimate concerns.”
Anti-trafficking activists are also holding out hope that the Obama administration can help defuse the situation by working out a compromise with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that would allow them to continue to receive grants to assist trafficking victims.
There have been ongoing talks between the two sides on that front over the past several months. According to Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs at the Bishops Conference, his organization submitted a proposal to HHS on ways to close the divide. It is, said Appleby, “about coming up with language that we can feel comfortable with our values and our beliefs but can also serve the best interests of victims.”
“The ball is in the administration’s court at this point,” he said.
Activists are also hopeful they can reach a detente with Coburn and other fiscal conservatives. Representatives from the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking met with Coburn staff last week to discuss his concerns and while no resolution was reached, Cory Smith, senior policy adviser for the alliance, called the discussion “constructive.”
His hope is that beefing up the accountability and transparency provisions in the bill will help reassure Coburn, but more spending reductions may also be necessary. Smith, however, notes that the 2011 legislation already cut costs for trafficking programs by roughly one-third to win the support of committee Republicans, including ranking member Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.
Unanimous support for the bill in the Senate would go a long way toward boosting its chances of final passage, since the calendar will be one of its biggest enemies. An early spring timeframe is being eyed — sometime after the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act gets a vote and before Leahy and other Judiciary Committee members are consumed with gun control and immigration legislation.
Said Smith: “I think everybody wants to move the bill quickly just given floor time and the crowded calendar.”