Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Biden's Record

Any US Senator who has been in Washington for 36 years is going to have a decidedly mixed record. In Joe Biden's case, there's some real good he's done, and there's some pretty disgusting stuff he's pulled. First, the good: Joe Biden played a pivotal role in getting the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed.

It may be hard to remember now, but widespread awareness of domestic violence--and how to deal with it--is a relatively new phenomenon. As late as the early 1990s, many communities had no domestic violence shelters at all, while those that did couldn't fund them adequately. And neither law enforcement nor the judicial system were prepared to deal with the special nature of domestic violence. If a woman who’d been battered or raped went to the police, she was frequently lucky if she got sympathy--let alone experts trained in how to handle such cases, go after perpetrators, and counsel the victims. “At that time there were no victim rights and [somebody] had to witness an act of violence in order to prosecute it,” says Judy Ellis, now executive director of First Step, a domestic violence program based in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. “The criminal justice system lacked information and training on the dynamics of domestic violence and its effects on the family.”

VAWA changed all of that. It cracked down on interstate stalking, set standards for the collection and use of evidence in abuse cases, and set up a national domestic violence hotline. No less important, VAWA poured money into local communities for the creation of new prevention and treatment initiatives. In Detroit, according to Ellis, a VAWA grant allowed local authorities to hire prosecutors, police officers. and counselors specifically trained to deal with domestic violence. It also paid for outreach programs into non-English speaking communities, where many victims had no idea of their rights--or the resources now available to them.

I do remember this bill getting passed, but I failed to realize the guy behind the scenes on this was Joe Biden.

So what did Biden have to do with all of that? Everything. Biden had been promoting a domestic violence bill starting in the early 1990s, and although it didn’t go far at first, he kept at it, finally getting his chance in 1994, once Bill Clinton became president and began pushing for a crime bill. Even then, it was a tough sell. Critics, led by Republican Senator Robert Dole, thought the '94 crime bill was bloated with unnecessary spending and demanded cuts from it--including the $1.6 billion over six years set aside for VAWA. But Biden held firm and, eventually, got his way. “You can sponsor a bill, but if you just sponsor a bill and let it sit there, that’s nothing,” says Pat Reuss, a longtime activist who was one of the measure's chief advocates in Washington. “He shepherded it. He made sure it happened. He assigned staff to it, gave them carte blanche to do with they needed, they spent days and nights on it.”

And Biden’s stewardship didn’t end with the bill’s passage. In 1996, when President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, Biden made sure that victims of domestic violence got an extra six months to exhaust welfare benefits. When the law was up for reauthorization in 2000, he won even more funding for it. Although the courts would end up striking down one part of VAWA’s legal reforms, and although it would occasionally rankle right-wingers, the program’s bipartisan support grew over the years. In 2006, President Bush signed its second reauthorization.

And while Biden certainly deserves credit for that, he's also got to take the hit on one of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed (one partially responsible for the subprime mess we're in now) the odious 2005 bankruptcy bill. Even worse, now news has come to light this week that Biden's son Hunter got $400k from MBNA, Delaware's largest employer and the corporate financial kingpin that owned Biden's vote on the issue.

Biden's son, Hunter, received the fees from MBNA Corp. from 2001 to 2005 for consulting work on online banking issues. Aides to Obama, who announced Biden as his vice-presidential running mate on Saturday, said the younger Biden, who is a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington, never lobbied for MBNA and that there was nothing improper about the payments.

Biden's support for the bankruptcy changes, signed into law in 2005, puts him at odds with Obama of Illinois, who opposed the bill and has criticized the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for supporting it.

In late 1996, MBNA (which was bought in 2006 by Bank of America), hired the younger of Biden's two sons, Robert Hunter Biden, known as Hunter, who had just graduated from Yale Law School, as a lawyer. The company promoted Biden to senior vice president by early 1998. And after the younger Biden worked at the Commerce Department on electronic commerce issues from 1998 to 2001, MBNA hired him back on a monthly consulting contract, aides said.

Consumer advocates say that Sen. Biden was one of the first Democratic leaders to support the bankruptcy bill, and he voted for it four times – in 1998, 2000, 2001 and in March 2005, when its final version passed the Senate by a vote of 74-25.

You win some, you lose some after almost four decades in the Senate, but it's important to know who you're voting for.

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