A dwindling pot of money to help crime victims won a new lease on life Tuesday after a unanimous Senate vote.
On a nearly unheard-of 100-0 tally, the Senate cleared a House-passed measure that would provide a financial rescue for the Crime Victims Fund. The Justice Department program uses fines and penalties imposed in criminal court cases to provide counseling and shelter to victims, and to reimburse their lost wages, health care costs or funeral expenses, among other things.
The legislation, which President Joe Biden is sure to sign, would give the fund a new source of revenue: money from out-of-court settlements, such as deferred prosecution agreements, that have become increasingly common in recent years as the number of criminal cases that go all the way to convictions has declined.
Currently, those out-of-court settlement dollars go into general revenue; only financial penalties associated with criminal convictions go into the Crime Victims Fund.
“It’s helped thousands and thousands of Americans during the most challenging moments of their lives,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in floor remarks Tuesday. “But today this popular and effective program is in danger of going into the red.”
Money from court cases has been on the decline in recent years, to the point where Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told Senate appropriators at a hearing last month that there might only be $400 million left in the victims fund at the end of fiscal 2022 if services were adequately funded but additional revenue didn’t materialize. That’s compared with $13 billion in the fund five years ago.
Tapping into out-of-court settlements would result in enough new money coming into the fund to boost spending on mandatory Victims of Crime Act programs by $7.5 billion over a decade, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated.
The vote marked a rare moment of bipartisan comity as the Senate prepares for a procedural vote Wednesday to push ahead with an infrastructure plan. The timing of that vote has angered Republicans, who say they shouldn’t be asked to proceed with infrastructure legislation before a bipartisan deal has been reached and a bill is written.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed to the Crime Victims Fund legislation as proof that bipartisan cooperation remains possible.
“It certainly belies any notion that we can’t legislate in a bipartisan way,” McConnell said on the floor. “We absolutely can, and we do — when a bipartisan outcome is what the Democratic majority truly wants and makes possible.”
But even on the victims fund bill, some Republicans waged a protest. Conservatives, led by retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., say the program too often has been used as a slush fund to finance other domestic priorities while evading spending caps.
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. Those savings, however, exist only on paper, since the money remains in the victims fund and doesn’t actually get spent elsewhere.
But given the fund’s low balance and no guarantee of a bumper crop of fresh settlement dollars anytime soon, appropriators have less to work with than they have for years.
In addition, House Democrats’ fiscal 2022 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill seeks to allow nearly $600 million more to flow to victims fund programs next year than this year’s appropriations law after an outcry from advocates concerned about cuts to those programs. The net result is House appropriators derived only about $1.3 billion to offset other spending from capping fund payouts in fiscal 2022, down from over $10 billion four years earlier.
Toomey offered an amendment Tuesday that would set a minimum threshold for Crime Victims 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, although the provision could be waived with a three-fifths vote.
As a safeguard against the fund’s depletion, the spending requirement would not apply if the fund’s balance dipped below $2 billion.
“I just want to make sure that crime victims get the money the statute says they’re supposed to get,” Toomey said in offering his amendment.
But Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said the amendment risks drawing down the fund too quickly in years when revenue declines. While spending from the fund has been robust in recent years, he said, “there could be a time when there’s not enough funds to keep it sustainable.”
Some Republicans joined Democrats in defeating Toomey’s amendment on a 40-60 vote. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a key backer of the underlying bill, said he would “reluctantly” oppose the amendment, citing opposition from victims organizations.
And Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that while Toomey has raised valid concerns about budget rules, passage of his amendment “will delay and perhaps derail this much-needed fix.”
Toomey ultimately voted for the underlying bill anyway, as did all 99 other senators.