Politics & Policy

No Way to Protect the Vulnerable

Democrats’ changes to the Violence Against Women Act are just political posturing.

Remember how opposing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities doesn’t actually mean you hate the disabled? Well, you might want to sit down for this one, but opposing the current reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act doesn’t necessarily mean you regularly go home and pull a Patrick Moran.

First, a little background: The Violence Against Women Act was first passed back in 1994. It was bipartisan and largely non-controversial. It was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 in much the same manner. This time around, though, it’s different. Democrats have added several provisions to the legislation that make it unacceptable to many Republicans, including members of the Senate Judiciary Committee (which passed the bill through on a party-line vote) and House Republicans, who are currently blocking its reauthorization.

How did previously non-political legislation engender such a sharp partisan split? And how could anyone be against a bill that purports to do nothing more than protect victims and potential victims of domestic violence?

Glad you asked! Because a number of commentators — including the headline scribe at CNN, who suggested Republicans want to “gut” VAWA, and the writer at HuffPo who assumed Hatch opposed reauthorization only because “the program is working very very well” — didn’t.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that advocates of reauthorization are quick to mischaracterize its opponents, but this kind of dialogue (or lack thereof) makes finding politically viable protections for victims of abuse much more difficult than it should be. In the Senate Judiciary Committee’s report on reauthorization, several Republican senators spelled out fairly clearly why they opposed it. In the section laying out the views of Senators Kyl, Grassley, Cornyn, and Hatch, they expressed frustration about feeling steamrolled during the process that added previously unheard-of changes to the legislation.

“The majority has performed the seemingly impossible feat of turning legislation that has enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support over many years into yet another bill that was reported on a party-line vote,” the report reads.

“Time and again, the majority has passed bills out of the Judiciary Committee on a party line vote,” the report continues. “Time and again, those bills have not become law. The Committee’s reported version of VAWA reauthorization will also not become law.” They added that for the sake of domestic-violence victims, Democrats should seek input from those across the aisle when making dramatic changes to legislation whose passage was previously non-controversial.

The changes that seem to give Republicans the most trouble are as follows: First, the new VAWA prohibits grant recipients from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity (one aspect of VAWA, traditionally, has been dispensing grants to groups that help the victims of domestic violence). The senators call this “a solution in search of a problem” and argue that it has little significance beyond scoring political points. They emphasized that they’ve seen little to no evidence of shelters’ discriminating against members of the LGBT community. And they argue that the unnecessary prohibitions could make shelters more vulnerable to lawsuits.

The senators also worry that new provisions designed to help immigrants prosecute their victimizers would “be manipulated as a pathway to U.S. citizenship for foreign con artists and criminals.” The new version of VAWA would create 5,000 new U-visas — temporary visas that allow immigrants who are victims of certain crimes to live and work in the U.S. for four years. U-visas can encourage marriage fraud. More than 20 Americans sent written statements to the committee about their experiences marrying foreign nationals and then being accused of abuse. U-visas make it easier for these people to get out of their marriages, collect alimony, and then get green cards. The latest iteration of VAWA does nothing to close this loophole, instead making more U-visas available — and, thus, making more Americans vulnerable to fraud.

A separate minority report, by Kyl, Hatch, Coburn, and Sessions, expressed opposition to a provision that would give Indian tribal governments jurisdiction over domestic-violence cases involving crimes committed against Native American women by non–Native American men on tribal lands. The senators argued there are important reasons that tribal courts don’t have jurisdiction over non-members. These courts don’t derive their power from the federal and state governments, but have “inherent powers of a limited sovereignty which has never been extinguished,” as the report reads, quoting United States v. Wheeler. As a result, these courts aren’t bound by the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. But if VAWA is reauthorized in its current form, “there would be no principled reason not to extend [that jurisdiction] to other offenses as well.” The senators continue by arguing that certain aspects of the tribal-court system often mean they “fail to provide due process,” so putting non-member American citizens under their jurisdiction could be a violation of those citizens’ rights.

Advocates of the change argue — convincingly — that Indian women who encounter violence from non-Indians on reservations are particularly vulnerable. Their attackers can’t be tried in Indian courts, and the cases also fall outside the jurisdiction of state courts, since the women are Indians. That leaves the federal courts, which rarely have “the will nor the resources to intervene in misdemeanor level domestic violence cases,” as the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women argues. So violence against Native American women by non–Native American men is a serious problem, and Congress would do well to try to find a bipartisan way to offer these women better protection. But expanding the power of tribal courts is not that solution.

Grassley and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced a bill that would reauthorize VAWA without adding provisions that conservatives find unacceptable. It didn’t go anywhere. Senate Democrats shouldn’t get away with using what should have been a bipartisan policy measure as a political tool.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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