In the waning days of the lame duck session, the Senate had the opportunity to pass the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act. Aimed at creating “a comprehensive, victim-centered approach to addressing the sex trafficking of minors,” the bill is “the first of its kind to deal with young trafficking victims domestically” by providing $12 million in off-set funding for state and local law enforcement to shelter, rehabilitate, prevent, and protect child victims of the sex trade.
Originally introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and John Cornyn (R-TX) in 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee adopted, amended, and passed the House version of this bill last summer which then passed the Senate by unanimous consent on December 9, 2010. The bill returned to the House, underwent further revision, and finally passed by voice vote on December 21, 2010. But when the Senate attempted to pass the bill again by unanimous consent, Sen. Jeff Sessions put a hold on the bill. The sole objector, Sessions effectively defeated its passage in the 111th Congress.
Sessions is pushing back against claims that he believes child victims deserve to be arrested as prostitutes, something the conservative Concerned Women of America alleged. In defending Sessions’ decision, a Republican Judiciary aide told ThinkProgress that Sessions was instrumental in helping the bill clear the Senate Judiciary Committee but had to object after the House removed two of his amendments that he said toughened the bill. One measure required a mandatory minimum sentence “for transporting, receiving or distributing” child pornography. The other expanded subpoena authority to the U.S. Marshals Service over unregistered sex offenders. But because the House removed these measures in its final revision, the Senate aide indicated several members opposed the new version. Thus, the staffer told us that, as the Ranking Member of the committee, Sessions had to be the one to block the bill.
According to his spokesman Ron LeGrand, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) — the outgoing Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security — dropped the subpoena position because there already was a precedent established for law enforcement agencies to receive subpoena authorization through the Department of Justice. Scott also dropped the mandatory minimum measure because minimums are “irrelevant, ineffective” sentences that “tend to have a very negative impact on people of color.” LeGrand said no one has ever presented Scott with “evidence-based research instead of knee-jerk slogan and soundbites” as rationale for the minimums, and in “the closing weeks of his chairmanship, that was still the case.” In removing the measures, LeGrand said Scott “stood on principle.”
But the Republican aide said their removal required Sessions to act on principle too. The hotlining process prevents members from changing the bill. Believing the bill to be brought up at the midnight hour of lame duck session, the aide said Sessions would not clear a watered down bill and preferred to take it up in the new session.
This is certainly not the first time a procedural impasse has jeopardized important legislation, nor is it the first time the GOP used time as an excuse to “run out the clock.” But anti-sex trafficking advocates said this time the procedural stalemate forced the sacrifice of the greater welfare of abused children. “Though we did not object to the Sessions amendments, we would have liked for Senator Sessions to put aside his objection to their removal in the House,” said Shared Hope International’s Senior Director Samantha Healy Vardaman.
Advocacy groups worked hard “to carefully craft a bill that provided solutions to the gaping problem of lack of shelter for child victims of sex trafficking and bolster support for law enforcement entities eager to investigate and prosecute these crimes,” she said. The Senate’s failure “results in a further delay in fulfilling the promise of the federal trafficking act to protect and restore victims of domestic minor sex trafficking.”
Still, Vardaman is “optimistic” that the momentum from last year “is sufficiently high in Congress to allow the bill to pass quickly in this new session.” While new efforts are likely to start in the House under the new Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), the Republican aide insisted that Sessions is supportive of the Senate bill and will work to see it passed this year. However, given the Senate GOP’s penchant for obstruction, advocates might need more than optimism.