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3 Reasons the Violence Against Women Act Has Been Bipartisan for 18 Years, and Why Congress Should Fast Track It

Nancy Pelosi

SOURCE: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), center, accompanied by fellow House Democrats, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, January 23, 2013, to discuss the reintroduction of the Violence Against Women Act.

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The 113th Congress is now underway, and one of the most important pieces of bipartisan business should be the passage of the Violence Against Women Act—the reauthorization of the landmark law first enacted in 1994 that strengthens law enforcement and provides resources to service providers so they can respond to domestic violence and sexual assault in our country. The reauthorization bill should have been passed after the law expired more than a year ago, but for the first time in the history of this legislation, the bill failed to make it through Congress and onto the president’s desk.

The expired law leaves victims, domestic violence shelters, and law enforcement across the country wondering why a law that had previously sailed through Congress for two previous reauthorizations has become the latest representation of partisan gridlock. Although the Senate passed a bill in April with a now-rare supermajority of 68 senators, including every female member, House leadership failed to reach a compromise before the end of the 112th Congress, which means it now has to be introduced in the 113th Congress. This was largely due to the House leadership’s inability to accept enhanced protections for gay* and transgender, immigrant, and Native American women.

Congress has a new opportunity this week to show the country that domestic violence is too important to get held up in partisan maneuvering, particularly in the House. Members of both the House and Senate reintroduced bills on Tuesday to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) introduced S. 47, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2013, which already has 16 bipartisan co-sponsors. The bill is nearly identical to S. 1925, the bipartisan Senate bill passed in April. Minor changes were made to revenue-generating provisions in the bill that deal with protections for immigrant victims of violence because the Constitution mandates that all bills that generate any revenue must be first introduced in the House. This provision was one of the stated reasons that House leadership held up reauthorization of the law in the previous Congress, even though it is common practice with other laws for the House to pass a simple “fixer” bill.

In an effort to make up for lost time, Sen. Leahy invoked Senate Rule 14 to bypass the committee process and make S. 47 immediately eligible for Senate floor consideration. Sen. Leahy based this request on sound reasoning that the Senate passed an identical bill by a wide bipartisan margin (68 to 31) less than one year ago. Although the Senate is not expected to immediately consider S. 47, invoking Rule 14 will allow the process to move much faster.

In the House, Judiciary Committee member Gwen Moore (D-WI), along with Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), introduced H.R. 11, the House companion to S. 47. They were also joined with the support of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Although it is not expected that this bill will move as quickly as the Senate version, it is likely that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) will work on a separate version of the reauthorization in a similar attempt to assuage House Republican leadership as Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL) did last Congress. House Republicans remain concerned with the Senate provisions of the bill that improve protections for Native American, gay and transgender, and immigrant victims of domestic and dating violence.

In the prior Congress, House leadership held up a Violence Against Women Act compromise for longer than seven months, even in the face of the overwhelmingly bipartisan Senate bill. With two new bills already on the table, it’s imperative for the 113th Congress, and particularly the House, to show the country that some issues are too important for partisan wrangling. The House has already shown it can finally come together over important bills such as relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, even after a prolonged hold-up. Let’s hope the House can do the same for victims of domestic violence.

Here are three reasons S. 47 and H.R. 11 are important means to continue the 18 years of bipartisan agreement to protect all victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and sexual assault.

The Violence Against Women Act has been successful, but some rates of violence remain unacceptable

The original Violence Against Women Act, championed by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), represented a major shift in how our country addressed domestic violence. The law emphasized a coordinated community response, bringing together services for victims, law enforcement, and courts, to keep victims safe and hold perpetrators accountable. Since its enactment the annual incidence of domestic violence has decreased by 53 percent.

Even with this success, rates of domestic and sexual violence are still a terrible and unacceptable problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in four women report experiencing severe physical violence by an intimate partner, and nearly one in five women have been raped in their lifetime.

Improved efficiency in federal funding in a difficult fiscal climate

Although domestic violence remains a terrible problem in our communities, these bills acknowledge the difficult fiscal climate currently facing our country. According to the Senate report for the bill it passed in April, this new version of the Violence Against Women Act consolidates 13 programs into 4 in an effort to improve administrative efficiency and duplication. Not only would the federal government be able to streamline its granting process but the bill also cuts the overall authorization level for the Violence Against Women Act by 17 percent—a $135 million reduction from the previous reauthorization. The bill also strengthens accountability mechanisms for funding. It requires the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General to conduct regular audits and penalizes grantees that don’t comply with necessary changes.

A continued tradition of expanding protections and services for those who need it most

Since its inception in 1994, one of the cornerstones of the Violence Against Women Act has been its ability to continually identify underserved communities and provide them with the resources and law enforcement they need to reduce domestic violence. After hearing from service providers, law enforcement, and victims themselves, the drafters of this new version of the law seek to improve services and law enforcement for Native American, gay and transgender, and immigrant victims of violence. Unfortunately, these expanded protections are what House leadership has cited as a reason to hold up the bill.

In tribal communities, nearly three out of five women had been assaulted by their spouse or intimate partner, according to one regional study. Another nationwide study found that one-third of all American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime.

For gay and transgender victims, even though it has been shown that they experience the same rate of domestic violence as other relationships, they often face obstacles accessing domestic violence services. In a 2010 survey 45 percent of gay and transgender victims were turned away when they sought help from a domestic violence shelter, and 55 percent of those seeking protection orders were denied them.

Undocumented immigrant women all too often live in the shadows of the law, where perpetrators exploit their unwillingness and inability to come forward to law enforcement. Their noncitizen status makes them particularly vulnerable to these crimes and fearful of assisting law enforcement. Programs that provide protections for undocumented victims and their children who can be easily harassed and intimidated due to their immigration status have been part of VAWA since 1994. The new versions of the bill remove the small increase to the U-Visa program due to the constitutional issues raised by House Republicans.

This new version of the Violence Against Women Act improves the ability of law enforcement to respond to all communities, regardless of whether they are Native American, gay and transgender, or immigrant victims. It also improves the way that existing resources can be used to provide support to these people. The new Congress should make reauthorizing this act a priority and pass a bill right away.

Erik Stegman is the Manager of the Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress.

*In this column, “gay” is used as an umbrella term to describe people that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

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