White House to government contractors: Stop human trafficking

Obama spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting Tuesday. Obama spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting Tuesday. Mark Lennihan/AP

This story has been updated with comment from the White House.

President Obama has issued an executive order to increase oversight that prevents human trafficking resulting from government contracts, the White House announced Tuesday.

The policy will seek to strengthen existing laws against government contracts going to companies involved in human trafficking by requiring contractors to provide more information about their foreign employees. It requires a compliance plan from any contractor or subcontractor whose foreign services exceed $500,000.

“As the largest single purchaser of goods and services in the world, the U.S. government bears a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not contribute to trafficking in persons,” Obama wrote in the order. “By providing our government workforce with additional tools and training to apply and enforce existing policy, and by providing additional clarity to government contractors and subcontractors on the steps necessary to fully comply with that policy, this order will help to protect vulnerable individuals.”

Obama also spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday to address the issue of human trafficking.

“I’ve made it clear that the United States will be a leader in this global movement,” Obama said at the New York conference. “Nations must speak with one voice -- that our people and our children are not for sale.”

Republican lawmakers were quick to criticize the initiative, calling it a political gambit. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., who sponsored the End Human Trafficking in Government Contracting Act -- which passed in the House as an amendment to the 2013 Defense Authorization Act -- said the executive order is modeled after his bill and circumvents the legislative process.

“For more than a year, a bipartisan group has worked in the House and Senate to address the global issue of human trafficking in federal contracting, since more than 20 executive policies and regulations have failed to stop the practice,” Lankford said in a statement.  “One more executive order will not solve the problem. We have a loophole in our law that must be closed, and we have serious enforcement issues of existing law.”

He added the president’s decision to issue an executive order was politically motivated.

“The president's political narrative that Congress is not working is threatened when good bills move through the legislative process and he does nothing to move them forward,” Lankford said. “Today's executive order allows the president to jump in front of the moving crowd and claim leadership, when real leadership involves not just doing something but doing the right thing, at the right time.” 

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the policy did not include the important step of expanding the criminal code to include labor bondage for work performed outside the United States.

“I’m concerned that the announcement behind this press event will only add one more unimplemented policy to the list,” Issa said in statement. “If he’s going to find time to go before the cameras and the international community to announce a half-measure policy, President Obama owes it to victims of trafficking to commit himself to personally engaging in the legislative effort to enact actual changes to federal criminal statutes.”

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the administration appreciates "congressional efforts on this issue and we will work with Congress as the executive order is implemented and as any legislation moves forward." She noted, however, that "only the Congress can change criminal penalties." 

A companion version of the House bill is sponsored in the Senate by three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent. Senators are expected to vote on it when they return from recess after the election.

The Professional Services Council, a trade group representing 350 government services companies, said it supports Obama’s actions.

“[We] stand with the administration in its efforts to ensure that American tax dollars are used as intended and do not flow to individuals or organizations that participate in the tragic practice of human trafficking,” PSC President and CEO Stan Soloway said. “Fortunately, such cases are exceedingly rare. But reasonable and focused vigilance is nonetheless the responsible approach to ensure the eradication of any cases.”

Soloway added PSC “will continue to work with the Congress to achieve the same objectives and goals.”

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