Thursday, December 06, 2007

Crumbling when it counts

-- by Dave

The Democrats who love to talk a good game about defending people's civil rights are in the process of establishing, once again, that it's all just talk.

Their moment of truth arrived two months ago when the Senate approved the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act and, in the hopes of overcoming a threatened George W. Bush veto, attached it to the national defense-authorization bill, which meant it then had to return to the House for conference-committee finalization.

Now 365 Gay News is reporting that, despite having more than enough votes to pass handily the first time around, Democrats can't seem to muster the will to make it happen this time:
House Democrats are reportedly resigned to removing the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime bill from defense authorization legislation.

Congressional Quarterly reports that House Democratic leaders believe they lack the votes to pass the measure.

The Shepard Act would add sexuality to the list of categories covered under federal hate crime law.

It passed the House in May and the White House threatened to veto it.

In an effort to get around a veto the Senate version tied the measure to the 2008 defense authorization bill. It passed in September and then went to conference where the two versions of the bill needed to be harmonized for a final vote. Since then the bill has been tied up.

Congressional Quarterly in a Tuesday report said that there now are enough votes to scuttle the legislation if the Shepard Act remains attached to it.

CQ which covers Capitol Hill extensively quoted unnamed House aides as saying House members on the conference committee are rewriting the defense bill and will likely recommend leaving out the hate crime provision.

That has apparently sparked differences with Senate conferees who want the Shepard Act to remain. Nevertheless it is expected that a compromise will be reached where the act will not be part of the spending bill.

Sadly, as much as deeply as it is disappointing, none of this is exactly a surprise. As I observed when the bill first passed:
Frankly, they appear to be resigned to defeat. That's why there's no push to change some of those Republican votes (what about, f'r instance, those "moderate" Republicans like Chuck Hagel or Mike Crapo or Elizabeth Dole -- who all voted against it -- or John McCain, who sat out?). There's no push to make sure that politicians who vote against the bill pay for it at the polls -- even though doing so (painting the opponents as callous people who don't care about minority rights, gay bashings, and are otherwise soft on crime) is a simple no-brainer.

That's why they seem disinterested in overriding the veto, and making both it and Republicans' congressional support for it a campaign issue for the 2008 vote. But I think there are other reasons for the disinterest as well.

Too many Beltway consultant types love to depict bias-crimes laws as "special interest" and "politically correct" legislation that only serve a small band of the electorate. They play off the media stereotypes created by folks like Andrew Sullivan and try to discourage their political clients for pushing this kind of law too hard.

Of course, the reality is that bias-crime bills are designed to protect everyone. White people, Christians, males -- they're all victims of bias crimes as well, and the law is intended to step protection for them, too, by stiffening the sentences for perpetrators.

Perhaps more important, bias-crime laws (as this week's vote suggests) are a natural cause for progressives and moderates alike, because they are not only about defending minority rights, they're about defending law and order and getting tough on criminals who inflict real harm on us all -- especially on our communities in the efforts to heal the ethnic and religious divides within them.

Democrats are frequently accused, with good reason, of taking their minority votes for granted. They know that they can count on minorities to line up behind them in the election, even though when the right-wingers go to the mattresses, they can always be counted on keeping their powder dry and not firing a shot. So they can make grand but ultimately hollow gestures like this week's hate-crimes vote, but never make the real effort needed to make these bills actually succeed.

But this bill is about all of us, not just minorities. If congressional Democrats are not willing to fight for it, they can just add it to their list of mounting failures in asserting their agenda.

Unfortunately, Democrats and white liberals in general have a history of capitulating on pushing forward an effective federal bias-crimes law. Consider just the recent history of this legislation:
-- Back in 1999, Republicans effectively managed to kill in committee the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was sponsored in 1998 in the Senate by Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., partly in response to the James Byrd in Texas killing that spring, and it picked up impetus that fall with the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. It proceeded out of the Judiciary Committee, and proceeded over the summer to move toward a floor vote. In July, it was folded into the Commerce, State, and Justice appropriations bill, approved by a wide margin, and forwarded to the House.

Lying in wait for the bill were the Republican leaders of the House, particularly Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both Texans with an oft-articulated animus toward the so-called "homosexual agenda." Despite broad and bipartisan support for the measure even among their own ranks, they managed to maneuver it to death--removing it from the Senate appropriations bill and sending it to the House-Senate conference committee, where it was dropped altogether on a straight party-line vote. Later that month, President Clinton vetoed the appropriations bill in part because it omitted the hate-crimes legislation, but he eventually capitulated and signed a budget bill that did not include the HCPA provisions.

-- Republicans again in 2000 managed to kill the HCPA's successor, the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act. In June, it passed the Senate by a wide margin, 57-42, and proceeded to the House, attached once again to another appropriations bill, this time the Department of Defense Authorization Act. Again, it enjoyed broad, bipartisan support; House members in September passed a resolution by a forty-vote margin (232-192) instructing joint-body conferees to include the bias-crimes language in the DOD bill.

But once again, the bill ran into the tandem team of Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, who succeeded on October 5 in stripping the legislation from the authorization bill.

-- In October 2004, just before the election, Republicans managed to very quietly (and with hardly a whimper from Democrats) kill the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act of 2004. This was a bill that had been approved overwhelmingly by the Senate in June by a 65-33 vote. The House itself passed a resolution 213-186 instructing the House leaders -- namely, Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert -- to pass the bill through the House Conference Committee. They ignored it, and eventually stripped it out of the Defense Appropriations Bill to which it had been attached, effectively killing it.

There's a pattern here: Democrats -- either through spinelessness or surreptitious mendacity -- have a history of refusing to take the fight over hate crimes to the carpets. Every time they have the votes to pass one, they attach it to another piece of legislation, which renders it vulnerable to the seemingly inevitable euthanasia in committee. This either reflects an unexpressed wish to kill a hate-crimes bill, or a failure to recognize bias crimes as an essential matter, and write it off as a fight they can't win.

Indeed, it's mind-boggling that congressional Democrats seem incapable of connecting the big bright fluorescent dots in front of them when it comes to bias crimes -- that they lie, in fact, at the heart of the national cultural divide. This bill isn't just about gay rights. It's about the Jena 6 and noose incidents. It's about the tide of anti-immigrant hate crimes being committed against Latinos.

Bias crimes lie at the black beating heart of everything progressives have historically fought: injustice, bigotry, exclusion, and violence. These things are the enemies of democracy itself, and that is why we fight them. Effectively confronting and addressing them is an imperative: politically, ethically, morally.

So the sad if utterly predictable fate of the latest federal bias-crimes law really represents an act of cowardice. I suppose we can look forward, fifty years from now, to seeing subsequent generations of politicians finally step forward and recognize that this abysmal failure to adequately confront bias crimes was a gross historical mistake for which many thousands of Americans paid the price. After all, it's what the Senate did not long ago in confronting the legacy of a previous generation's purposeful failure to act against its version of hate crimes, lynching.

I won't be there to see it, of course, but I wonder if they'll all, once again, break their arms patting themselves on the back. The U.S. Congress seems real good at that sort of thing. Anything else, not so much.

UPDATE: Lane Hudson has more.

No comments: