It is a sign of just how toxic the political environment in Washington, D.C., has been that reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act was so crowning an achievement for the 113th Congress.
What should have been a legislative no-brainer for Republicans and Democrats alike was instead a year-long standoff between the two parties over which women deserve which protections under the measure designed to prevent and protect women from violence, particularly that of a sexual nature or that rendered by their intimate partners. In the end, sanity prevailed, but only because the political tides have turned since the measure was stalled in the last Congress.
The bottom line here is a good one: The bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act passed both the Senate and the House last month, and the latest version rightly reflects some critical changes in the landscape since its initial passage in 1994 – as well as extends protection to women not specifically covered under the bill’s original text.
The reauthorization requirement allowed lawmakers to conduct a thorough evaluation of the original act – a critical part of the policy process that the final bill illustrates effectively. By looking at what the Violence Against Women Act did well, did not do enough of, could do better and what had changed or emerged as priorities in the context of the bill’s protection goals since its original passage, Congress could be sure the bill stayed relevant for those it was intended to protect and became an effective tool for those it previously overlooked.
And it has. The key provisions that kept the measure stalled in the House of Representatives throughout the last Congress were those that reflect cultural shifts and oversights since 1994. The new act adds protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women, as well as illegal immigrant women. Additionally, the measure allows tribal courts to prosecute non-Native abusers who are charged with assaulting women on Indian reservations – a change that will add significant protection for Native American women who were often hamstrung in bringing their attackers to justice before the change.
The evaluation that led to the bill’s reauthorization clearly considered its benefits as well as its demerits and responded accordingly. That represents the best in the policy process – one that is cyclical and never-ending. Were the work to stop once a bill is approved and implemented, many laws would fade in the light of changing landscapes – social, political, economic or otherwise.
In the case of the Violence Against Women Act, staying relevant is critical. The impetus for the original act has not disappeared – namely that women too often suffer violent crimes, sexual or otherwise, and too often do not receive the support they need in response to those crimes. The act has done much to address that wrong by strengthening federal penalties for repeat sex offenders, for example, and creating a federal rape shield law, as well as establishing a National Domestic Violence Hotline and funding coordinated community response programs designed to prevent violence first but respond to it effectively when it occurs. Extending the reach of these and all the act’s provisions so that those who need them can count on its protections will continue to reduce the violence perpetrated on women. There should be universal support for such a notion.
As it turned out, there was enough, despite repeated attempts by House Republicans to keep the newest additions to the act out of the final version. Doing so would not only have left vulnerable immigrant, native and gay women unprotected under the act – an indefensible position – from a pure process perspective, it would have made meaningless the evaluation process. Failing to reflect the most current conditions that a bill is designed to address is lazy lawmaking. Wrapping that laziness in a political robe, as some Republicans did in rejecting the expanded protections on claims that they were an overreach of the federal government, is tacky at best. Had it worked, it would have been dangerous for countless women.
The Violence Against Women Act is not perfect legislation. Nothing is. The factors that lead to violent acts against women are many and complex, and the measure cannot hope to address and eradicate them all. Relational, cultural, familial, biological and economic issues are just a few that contribute to the violence women – and men and children – suffer at others’ hands.
Politics should not be on that list and in passing the bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, Congress at last demonstrated a recognition of that. It was long overdue, but no less welcome.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.