Hate crimes should not be an afterthought
Last week congressional Democrats finally managed to accomplish a decade-old goal: expanding the definition of federal hate crimes to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability. President Barack Obama promptly signed this landmark civil-rights legislation into law, and civil-rights organizations hailed the accomplishment.
The “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” is one of the few policies of the Obama administration and the 111th Congress that I almost support whole-heartedly. Were it not for the manner in which it was passed, I would.
In their effort to ensure the landmark legislation was passed and faced minimal opposition, the Democratic Senate leadership added the Matthew Shepard Act to the end of the “National Defense Authorization Act for 2010,” a nearly $680 billion defense spending bill.
Therefore, this landmark piece of legislation is really little more than a provision, comprising the last 10 pages of a 655-page appropriations bill. The actual name of the piece of legislation doesn’t even hint that the hate-crimes provision is included, but suggests that the “landmark legislation” is solely about funding National Defense programs.
The Democratic Party had tried during every session of Congress since 2001 to pass this legislation in various ways, including adding it to defense appropriation bills, but failed each time. Sometimes they failed to secure the votes necessary in Republican Congresses, other times they succeeded in amending other bills to include the hate-crimes provisions but later dropped the amendments.
In this session of Congress, however, the Democrats had enough votes in the Senate to prevent a filibuster and enough votes in the House of Representatives that every Republican could have voted against the bill and it still would have reached Obama’s desk for his signature.
Ultimately, there was little reason to append the Matthew Shepard Act to a defense appropriations bill. In my mind, this is somewhat of a hollow victory. Sure, the Democrats finally got something that they had wanted for the past 10 years and civil-rights groups got a big win, but it comes in the form a provision rather than its own piece of legislation.
If Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted this “landmark legislation” so badly, and wanted to be known for having passed it, this would have been the time to rally their caucuses and pass the Matthew Shepard Act as its own piece of legislation.
They had the votes to do it and they should have. Appearing to have a bi-partisan bill was not a problem, either; 18 Republicans voted for the hate-crimes bill in the House before the Senate turned it into an amendment, and I am sure that the Democratic Senate leadership could have picked up a couple of moderate Republicans like Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.
While this provision is surely groundbreaking, significant and something I ultimately support, I believe that it would have been a much greater accomplishment for the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leadership had the Matthew Shepard Act been passed in its original form and not as what amounts to a 10-page footnote on a 655-page bill.
Brenden Higashi is a sophomore political science major from Spokane, Wash. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.