Human trafficking bills show how Congress can work together – aim small

The fact is, Congress frequently works in a bipartisan way, but it is generally on small-bore issues. This Congress could chip away at a number of issues, starting with Tuesday's House human trafficking bill. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas speaks out against human sex trafficking during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington Tuesday. The House passed a bipartisan package of human trafficking bills Tuesday.

It’s a shock to the partisan senses to see as many as 18 Republican and Democratic House members stand before the cameras and unite behind legislation, as they did in the House TV studio on Tuesday. What brought them together are 12 bills to help prevent human trafficking in America and around the world, including child sex trafficking.

These are what might be called second-tier bills. They are important to particular constituencies, sometimes large, but they are not immigration or entitlement reform. And with the Republican-led Congress getting off to an acrimonious start with President Obama – and, in some cases, with its own members – it might be easy to miss notes of harmony.

The trafficking bills, which passed the House this week, are a reminder that Congress can play nice when it wants to – and on the smaller items usually out of the public eye, it often does.

“You see every week … bills that garner overwhelming support. They’re not necessarily the big bills, but that does not mean they’re not important,” said Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, speaking with reporters on Tuesday.

Going forward, the question is what the Senate will do, and whether these sparks of bipartisanship can kindle any goodwill on the big stuff. 

Now that the GOP controls the Senate, backers of the anti-trafficking bills have high hopes that the Senate will move their legislation along to the president’s desk. Some of the trafficking bills – and other bipartisan smaller-bore bills on other subjects – passed the House in the last Congress, but they died in a Senate controlled by Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.

That wasn’t because of Democratic objection per se. It was because Senator Reid had a practice of keeping bills free of amendments. Reid was trying to filter out GOP amendments aimed at embarrassing Democrats. But that shutout discouraged other potentially bipartisan amendments, where these littler bills would have found a home.

His successor, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky is promising an open amendment process. That will give legislation such as the trafficking bills a much greater chance of survival, says Don Stewart, deputy chief of staff to Senator McConnell. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to bring the trafficking bills forward, according to House GOP leadership. 

Human sex trafficking is a problem on the rise, according to the FBI. It’s the fastest growing business of organized crime, and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. Each year, 300,000 American children are at risk of becoming victims.

The trafficking bills, working their way through the House this week, would do things like criminalize those who knowingly advertise for child and other trafficking victims, improve communication between the US and other countries on sex offenders’ travel, and help state workers and others recognize and support trafficking victims, whether they be runaways or children in foster care.

Some of the dozen bills were years in the making. They were brought together as a group by House GOP conference leader, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. She says other such bipartisan efforts are under discussion, including economic policies and tax provisions that “empower” women and families and that better support women at home and at work.

McConnell Deputy Chief of Staff Mr. Stewart sees potential for smaller bipartisan legislation in certain areas of trade and energy development.

“There’ll be a lot of things that we’ll agree on on a bipartisan basis,” says Democrat Hoyer. “What we really need is to forge a bipartisan agreement on the big issues.”

He doesn’t see that so far.

But some believe that small-bore bills can help pave the way to agreement on bigger issues. Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi says they can “act as a lubricant.” 

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