By Cody Perkins

After months of amendments, rejections and political turmoil, on February 12, 2012, the U.S. Senate finally and overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill (VAWA).  Since VAWA’s expiration in September of 2011, controversy has arisen surrounding new proposed versions of the Act, which could include key protections for same-sex couples, immigrants, and Native Americans. 

Originally passed in 1994 in response to grassroots efforts from the courts, law enforcement, and domestic violence groups, all urging greater protections for women in the areas of domestic assault and sexual abuse, VAWA has since become the focus of an ideological fight between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.  Since the previous version of the Act expired, tensions have grown between lawmakers as the balance between ideological convictions about the constitutionality and morality of certain provisions and the very real need for funding to combat violence and assault have come to a head.  In the week leading up to Senate passage, lawmakers rejected two amendments to the Act, introduced by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) respectively, as the latest in a long line of amendments and new bills intended to restructure the Act and omit protections for LGBT, immigrant, Native American, and college-aged Americans.  The bill will now be sent to the House, where a fight is expected, especially from Republican lawmakers.  However, House Republicans may not win this one – it is clear to all that the longer the Act is not reauthorized, the greater the public pressure to pass some version that will reinstate funding to law enforcement, advocacy groups and local and state governments working to prevent and prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was first enacted in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (also known as the Assault Weapons Ban) (42 U.S.C. § 13701).  Introduced by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and Representative Jack Brooks (D-TX), the Act passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support, and marked a significant shift in criminal justice responses in the areas of domestic violence (including dating violence), sexual assault and stalking.  As originally passed, VAWA focused on local solutions to violence against women, supporting community-coordinated responses involving state and local law enforcement, private non-profits and services, and initiatives such as domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.  In addition, VAWA created federal causes of action for domestic violence (although this provision was later struck down by the Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison).  VAWA has been reauthorized twice since its original passage, once in 2000 (providing additional protections for victims of dating violence and stalking, as well as illegal immigrants and families) and again in 2005 (broadening VAWA’s protections to include more immigrants, children and teenagers, and creating more support for prevention techniques).

Since the Act’s passage, many have heralded the legislation as having instituted a “paradigm shift” in the norms and responses associated with domestic violence.  A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that intimate partner violence has decreased by 64% since 1994, and more victims of rape and sexual assault have reported their assault to the police since the Act’s passage, increasing from 28.8% in 1993 to 50% in 2010.  Criminal and civil justice authorities, as well as nonprofits and victims’ rights organizations, have all praised the Act’s effectiveness and urged its reauthorization.

However, the Act’s reauthorization has been held up in Congress, an unforeseen roadblock for an Act that enjoyed bipartisan support every time it came up for reauthorization in the past.  Most of the opposition has come from Congressional Republicans, citing concerns over VAWA’s inclusion of domestic violence protections for same-sex couples, VAWA’s delegation of prosecution to Native American tribal courts, and VAWA’s lack of restrictions on U visas (special visas allowing immigrant victims of domestic violence to stay in the country while their abusers are being prosecuted).  In addition, some have criticized VAWA’s focus on women, and would like the Act to better address the concerns of both men and women in domestic violence situations.

In response to Republican concerns, multiple new versions of VAWA have been considered and introduced in an attempt to reinstate the support and funding for domestic abuse and sexual assault programs around the country.  Perhaps the most controversial version is the Cantor/Adams VAWA reauthorization bill, which would omit provisions giving Native Americans prosecutorial authority, protection for LGBT victims and immigrants, and some protections for college students from the Act.  This version passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May on an almost completely party line vote, but never passed the Senate, and faced the threat of veto from the President for failing to include so many protections.  The Grassley amendment, rejected by the House on February 7, 2013, would have made the Senate bill markedly similar to the Cantor/Adams version.  While it is clear that many Republicans still favor a Cantor/Adams framework for the bill, the bipartisan bill passed on February 12, authored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), included the protections omitted from the Grassley proposal. The bill passed the Senate with 62 cosponsors and represents the best hope thus far for actual passage in both houses of Congress.  While some hope this show of bipartisanship will finally bring this matter to rest, an extremely Republican House and VAWA’s reauthorization history indicates that passage in one chamber of the legislature is no guarantee of reauthorization anytime soon.

If reauthorization is further delayed, more and more programs designed to help and protect people in domestic violence situations, who are suffering the aftereffects of rape or are being stalked, will become the casualties in this political debate.  With so much at stake, and a year and a half of delay and negotiation already, the House should be careful before rejecting yet another version of VAWA and returning to the drawing board once again.