Politics & Policy

Violence against VAWA

Democrats are hijacking the bill politically.

Twenty-two Senate Republicans are down with domestic violence, and also probably have a bunch of friends who are rapists: These, at least, are the only possible defenses bloggers at the Daily Kos could think of for Republican opposition to the Senate version of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which passed on Tuesday and now faces an, uh, interesting future in the House. Some believe the legislation’s fate has become a pawn in a political messaging war. And it’s certain that what should have been a breezy reauthorization process has become fraught, combative, and even a little personal.

A bit of background: The Violence Against Women Act, known as VAWA, was first passed in 1994. It was drafted by then-senator Joe Biden’s office, and Senator Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) worked with Biden to put the legislation together. It passed with bipartisan support, and it’s been reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. It was up for reauthorization again last year (by the 112th Congress), but didn’t sail through as it had in the past: Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee added a few provisions that Republicans found troublesome, and the reauthorization never went through.

As I pointed out on NRO that time around, Republicans on the committee felt steamrolled by their colleagues on the left. They wrote as much in a committee report, saying, “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.” Senate Democrats are really something, huh?

The most recent iteration of the bill passed through the Senate on Tuesday, but it’s okay if you missed it — news of its passage got largely drowned out by State of the Union and Psycho Cop-Killer Burning To Death In A Cabin coverage. Anyway, 22 Republicans (including conservative stalwarts Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Jeff Sessions, and Rand Paul) opposed its passage, to the delight of snarkers on the Internet. Notably, Orrin Hatch voted against it, as well.

This raises a few questions. First, what got lost in translation between the 1994 VAWA and the 2013 one that managed to alienate one of the bill’s original co-authors? And second, what’s in store for this newly controversial legislation?

Let’s start by looking at the changes. The new element of the bill that seems to be the most troublesome is a provision intended to curtail domestic violence on tribal lands. Attacks on Native women by non-Native men are a serious problem, and merit national attention. Only federal courts have jurisdiction over these cases, but the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that they often lack both the will and the resources to prosecute misdemeanor-level domestic-violence cases. Federal lawmakers should work seriously to find a solution to this problem, but the changes that VAWA makes are not that.

The current Senate version of VAWA would give tribal courts jurisdiction over the cases just described. That sounds simple enough, but it’s actually incredibly problematic for many conservatives. Tribal courts aren’t bound by the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and often “fail to provide due process,” as the Republican committee members’ report argues. So passage of the law would undermine the constitutional rights of American citizens. And if tribal courts have jurisdiction over these cases, why not give them jurisdiction over others?

Senator Hatch argued this on February 7, saying that the latest version of the bill he used to support “not only stops short of guaranteeing all constitutional rights but also does not provide for direct review of convictions in U.S. courts. I simply cannot support depriving American citizens of constitutional rights and judicial protection.” Sounds reasonable.

Another problem with the latest version of VAWA is a provision intended to provide extra protection to LGBT abuse victims. That’s also an admirable goal — sexual orientation shouldn’t keep people from getting help — but the legislation could make shelters (many of which operate on shoestring budgets) unduly vulnerable to lawsuits. David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation argues that the anti-discrimination provisions could mean that if an all-female shelter turned down protection to a gay man, the man might be able to sue.

VAWA still passed with bipartisan support — it probably didn’t hurt that many Republicans didn’t need another reason to be accused of going to war on all women everywhere — and now it’s headed for the House. A GOP aide tells National Review Online that many feel that proponents of the Senate’s version have ulterior motives. The House passed its own version of VAWA during the 112th Congress and put forward conferees, but the Senate never chose members for a conference committee. Some see that as an indicator that congressional Democrats are more interested in construing Republican opposition to the legislation as part of the party’s fabled War on Women than they are in protecting said females.

It’s a messy fight over comparatively wonky details that Democrats might win even if they lose. If they get their way and the House capitulates on the Senate version, congressional Democrats will have another victory to parade for special-interest groups. And if they refuse to compromise with Republicans on an amenable version of the bill, they’ll have lots of cheap talking points to sling around on cable news and put in fundraising letters. The conservatives in the Senate who made the politically touchy decision to oppose the legislation deserve kudos for taking a principled stance. As it stands, though, they’ll just probably just get sass from BuzzFeed.

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


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