Crime victims bill logjam ends; may go to Biden’s desk next week

Bill to boost cash for victims' services is set to move forward

Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., left, and ranking member Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, are both original sponsors of the Crime Victims Fund bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., left, and ranking member Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, are both original sponsors of the Crime Victims Fund bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 16, 2021 at 7:51am

A Justice Department program that uses fines and penalties from criminal settlements to fund services for crime victims is on the verge of getting a long-sought cash infusion.

On the same day groups like the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence urged members to light up senators’ phone lines, email addresses and Twitter feeds with calls for action, Democratic and Republican leaders in that chamber reached agreement late Wednesday to take up House-passed legislation to give the Crime Victims Fund a financial boost. Sources familiar with the matter expect that vote to occur next week.

The measure would direct revenue from out-of-court settlements like deferred prosecution agreements, which have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, into the fund so it no longer has to rely solely on criminal cases.

That money has been dwindling in recent years, to the point where Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told Senate appropriators at a hearing last month there might only be $400 million left in the victims fund at the end of fiscal 2022 if services are adequately funded but additional revenue doesn’t materialize. That’s compared with $13 billion in the fund five years ago.

Advocates say the House-passed bill is sorely needed to prevent deep cuts to programs aiding victims of domestic violence and other crimes, and it's likely got enough support to pass the Senate.

That chamber’s version has 63 listed backers, or more than enough to overcome a filibuster, including 21 Republicans. Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and ranking member Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, are among the original sponsors, as is Budget Committee ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the former Judiciary chairman.

But after sailing through the House in March on a 384-38 vote, the measure has been sitting in the Senate amid grumbling from fiscal conservatives.

The unanimous consent agreement stipulates that at a time to be worked out by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the chamber will proceed to two hours of debate on the measure and one amendment to be offered by the bill’s chief antagonist: retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa.

Both sides support the basic goal of the bill: to replenish dwindling revenue for a fund that —without spending any taxpayer dollars — supports programs like reimbursing crime victims’ health care costs and lost wages, and community organizations providing domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, child abuse programs and more.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated it would result in $7.5 billion more spending on such programs over a decade as more money coming into the fund from settlements reached out of court flows back out into victims programs.

Toomey amendment

But some Republicans including Toomey say the fund is too often used to pay for programs unrelated to crime victims. Appropriators for years have held back spending some of the fund’s revenue so as to claim it as savings to pay for other programs without busting discretionary spending caps.

But as the fund’s balance has dropped, so has appropriators’ ability to tap it for other spending. In their version of the fiscal 2022 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill, House Democrats are proposing to reverse cuts in Crime Victims Fund programs this fiscal year due to tighter limits they imposed in the final year-end spending law.

The combination of allowing $585 million more to flow to mandatory programs for crime victims, and less money in the fund overall, means House Democrats are left with just $1.29 billion in savings to pay for more fiscal 2022 Justice Department discretionary spending on top of their regular budget allocation. That’s compared with $3.5 billion this year, and more than $10 billion as recently as fiscal 2018.

But keeping that cash out of appropriators’ hands is a feature, not a bug, for conservatives like Toomey who say the Crime Victims Fund has turned into a slush fund to evade spending caps. “If the money doesn’t end up going to crime victims and their advocates, then it frees up additional money to be spent on whatever anybody else wants to spend it on,” he said recently on the Senate floor.

To curb that practice, Toomey has an amendment that would set a minimum threshold for Crime Victim Fund spending. The amendment would require Congress to spend no less than the average annual amount deposited into the fund during the preceding three fiscal years, though the provision could be waived with a three-fifths majority vote.

As a safeguard against the fund’s depletion, the spending requirement would not apply if the fund’s balance dipped below $2 billion.

‘We’re in a crisis’

As part of the unanimous consent agreement to take up the bill, Toomey will get a vote on his amendment with a simple majority threshold for adoption. Crime victim advocates are lobbying against the amendment, saying it risks derailing legislation that is needed immediately.

“At this point, we’re in a crisis,” said Monica McLaughlin, public policy director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, another nonprofit advocacy group. “The fund is bleeding out.”

State victim assistance grants have plummeted by nearly 68 percent since fiscal 2018, McLaughlin said, dropping from $3.39 billion that year to $1.09 billion this year. Without an overhaul, she said, “The Crime Victims Fund is not sustainable.”

Tapping out-of-court settlements, as the bill would allow, promises to help fill the gap. So far this calendar year, those settlements have yielded $545 million that could have replenished the crime fund if the legislation had become law, according to a letter sent Tuesday to senators from 16 crime victim advocacy organizations.

“Every delay allows potential funds that should be deposited into the Crime Victims Fund to serve victims to instead be deposited into the General Treasury,” advocates said in their letter, which included groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the National District Attorneys Association and the National Criminal Justice Association.

High-profile settlements this year so far include $243.6 million aircraft maker Boeing Co. agreed to pay resulting from charges it that withheld information from the Federal Aviation Administration on problems with the 737 Max that led to several fatal crashes. Another is $115 million Boston-based financial institution State Street Corp. paid to resolve charges that it tried to defraud customers with hidden fees.

Advocacy groups urged senators to oppose Toomey’s amendment, saying it does not include enough safeguards to prevent the fund from being drawn down too quickly. And while the fund’s balance is often scored as an offset to pay for other programs, the money nonetheless sits in the fund and is used only for crime victims, advocates note.

Meanwhile, a dwindling cash balance has led to smaller payouts in the last several years, forcing cuts in services to crime victims, said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Legal services have been scaled back. Waiting lists are growing. And in Iowa, a domestic violence intervention program had to close three satellite offices, she said.

“You’re seeing massive cuts in funding at the same time you’re seeing an increase in need,” Glenn said.

Advocates’ lobbying push looks to have paid off, however. The Senate’s plan, according to a Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity, is to pass the House bill without changes. Assuming Toomey’s amendment isn't adopted, final passage would send the measure directly to President Joe Biden's desk for his signature.