The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a barometer of bipartisan sensibility. First enacted in 1994, the law offers a comprehensive approach that tightens penalties against offenders while also providing services to abuse victims.
Some VAWA components are so embedded in the criminal justice system as to be axiomatic, such as the federal rape-shield law that prevents offenders from using a victim’s past sexual conduct against them. The VAWA tracks with promising statistical swings, including a 67 percent decline in the rate of intimate-partner violence between 1993 and 2010. Just as meaningful, all states, including Washington, have followed the VAWA example and reformed laws that originally treated spousal or date rape as a lesser crime than stranger rape.
Last Tuesday, the law, which expired in 2011, passed the U.S. Senate by a 78-22 vote. Reauthorization in the U.S. House shouldn’t be a political football, but this is no ordinary partisanshp.
“Thankfully, we’re beginning to see reasonable House Republicans join their colleagues in the Senate and come out in support of this bipartisan legislation,” Sen. Patty Murray said. “I am confident this bill could pass the House if Republican leadership brings it up for a vote on behalf of victims all across America who can’t wait one more day.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell, one of the original VAWA co-sponsors, also serves as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. And herein lies the bugaboo for a handful of hidebound partisans: An unwillingness to accept the equal treatment of tribal authority, even when the mission is to protect victims of abuse.
“The Senate sent a very clear message that no matter where you live, you deserve to be protected,” Cantwell said. “And the message was equally clear that you cannot escape accountability for committing crimes against women. So this final bill that we now move to the House of Representatives will help us close the gap in the legal system for prosecuting domestic violence on Indian reservations.”
Cantwell elbowed colleagues to sandbag an amendment that would have stripped critical protections for tribal women. There was even an amendment, subsequently withdrawn, that would have lowered the crime of domestic violence by non-Indians against Indian women from a felony to a misdemeanor-level punishment, irrespective of the severity of the crime.
The U.S. House and all members of the Washington delegation need to get on board and quickly pass the VAWA. If lawmakers can’t find common cause on something so elemental, this Congress will redefine legislative gridlock.