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The Anti-Wonk’s Guide to the Violence Against Women Act

Feburary 7, 2013

Camille Hayes


Today the Senate votes, again, on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), so everyone brace yourselves to read a lot of bad reporting on it. It’s not all the reporters’ fault; political reporters have a problem, which is that people who like to write about policy tend to be wonks, whereas the people who end up reading their stories mostly aren’t.  By “wonks,” I mean people who enjoy complexity for its own sake. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But if you’re deep in the weeds, enumerating bill subsections and debating what “the” means, you probably won’t craft an explanation that’s clear to someone who will likely only dedicate a few minutes to figuring out what the hell you’re saying. You end up with stories that are heavy on statutory details but light on context: they tell you everything about the bill except why you should give a damn.


I’m sort of an anti-wonk. To me, the most interesting thing about complexity is figuring out how to simplify it; taking something that’s a mess of intertwined factors and distilling it down to a few key elements. After reading all the confusing/wrong reporting on this bill, I decided to create a quick-and-easy VAWA overview: what the bill does, and why the current controversy matters. Read up, so when Congress starts screwing around you can complain about it in an informed way. Democracy!


The Bill: The Violence Against Women Act The Acronym: VAWA (we pronounce it vah-wah, darling) Why you should give a damn: VAWA is a very large piece of legislation that funds hundreds of rape, domestic violence, and law enforcement programs across the country. There are also a number of criminal justice laws embedded in the bill, concerning issues like sentencing, victim restitution and immigration. In 2012, after almost 20 years of bipartisan hand-holding, Congressional Republicans suddenly turned on VAWA, demanding changes that would actually DECREASE the safety of certain victims and ultimately blocking reauthorization. Consequently, VAWA is now expired. Please note: The most important issue right now is the changes the GOP is trying to make to the bill, not the fact that VAWA’s expired. Recent coverage to the contrary, Congress funds expired legislation all the time; VAWA funding is currently safe. However, if the GOP is allowed to make the changes they’ve asked for, the bill will:


• Remove provisions protecting the anonymity of abused immigrants, exposing them to retribution from their abusers and potentially jeopardizing their immigration status

• Prevent certain organizations who serve LGBT domestic violence victims from getting government funding for that work

• Remove provisions protecting LGBT victims from discrimination when they seek victim services

• Prevent Tribal authorities from prosecuting non-Natives who victimize Native women on sovereign lands

• Piss off every domestic violence advocate in America.

The above is all you really need to know to follow the VAWA story in the news this week. Below is a bit more detail on the bill’s legislative history—which will give you a sense of what a jerk move it was for the GOP to derail it.


VAWA HISTORY* October, 1991: the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate Hearings. This isn’t a date you’ll find in any other VAWA timeline, but I’m convinced that the sick-making levels of sexism displayed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during those hearings made a lasting impression on then-Senator Joe Biden, and turned him into a champion of women’s rights. See, Biden was chair of Senate Judiciary; he presided over the hearings and it was his job to control the committee members and, you know, prevent them from publicly humiliating the nice lawyer lady. This he manifestly did not do. Biden is generally a stand-up guy, liberal and pro-feminist. My totally made-up theory is that his guilt over how those hearings went down is one of the things that led to . . .

1994: VAWA is Passed (a.k.a., Uncle Joe Makes Up with American Women). Senator Biden sponsors, and sells the hell out of, the Violence Against Women Act. The hybrid victim services/funding/criminal justice bill was sold to Democrats as social justice and to Republicans as tough on crime, and ended up being totally bipartisan thanks to Biden’s smart work. VAWA attracted a combined total of 294 co-sponsors from the House and Senate, which ain’t too shabby. Clinton signed it into law later that year. The original VAWA proceeded to reduce crime and generate funding for victim services nationwide, and everyone was happy. Which brings us to . . .

2000: The First VAWA Reauthorization. Big bills like VAWA, with lots of programs and moving parts, have to be reauthorized periodically. Bill sponsors use reauths to increase funding levels, add new provisions and tweak the actual language in the bill to be more inclusive, or more specific or whatever. VAWA 2000 made some notable changes, all of which were progressive in nature; i.e., advocates went looking for more and different groups for the bill to protect. (Remember the “progressive” thing, because it’s coming back to bite us in the ass here shortly.) New victim groups added to VAWA 2000: the elderly, teens, immigrants. VAWA 2000 was still an impressively bipartisan affair,  passing the Senate 95-0 and the House 371-1.

January, 2006: VAWA 2005 Signed Into Law. This second VAWA reauthorization saw improvements similar to those of 2000, and also increased legal protections for Native American women. Native women suffer domestic violence at a rate two-and-a-half times higher than the general population: around one in three. Additionally, one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, with nearly 75% of those rapes perpetrated by non-Native men. Those are some seriously grim numbers, and in 2005 VAWA authors worked with tribal leaders on solutions to bring Native victimization rates down. The new provisions were in keeping with the progressive spirit of this bill, and didn’t generate much controversy at the time: VAWA passed the House 415-4, and the Senate unanimously. But the new Native victim protections sowed the seeds of a controversy that would help derail VAWA at its next reauth. This brings us, finally, to . . .

April 2012-Present: The Total Cluster%$#! That is VAWA 2012. In its third reauth, Congressional Republicans turn their backs on VAWA en masse with very little warning. There are three types of new provisions they blame when they all go on CNN to blather about how VAWA is suddenly “overreaching” and “unconstitutional,” which happen to concern three demographic groups Republicans haven’t always treated so well, legislatively speaking: immigrants, Native Americans and LGBT people. Coincidence? The nonsense starts before the bill even makes it out of committee, and it clears the Senate (68-31) only because Democrats have a majority. When it hits the House things go from bad to ridiculous, with GOP leadership refusing to even vote on the Senate bill, instead proposing and passing their own terrible version (see bullet points above for details of said terribleness). They do this just to be jerks, basically, because they know the Senate will never pass, or even look at, their piece of crap bill. Then they let the original Senate version die when the 2012 session ends, meaning that VAWA has to start all over again in the Senate in 2013; that is, today.

The bill being voted on today is almost identical to last year’s Senate bill—the wild card is what (stupid) amendments Republicans might propose, and whether Democrats are willing to stand up to them. The outcome domestic violence advocates want today is for VAWA to pass the Senate with NO amendments. If you have questions or want clarification of anything I said here, let me know in the comments!

*For a more thorough, less idiosyncratic history of VAWA, you can find the US Office on Violence Against Women’s timeline here. Anita Hill is not mentioned. Call it an oversight.


UPDATE: During the Senate debate, Sen. Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed a “substitute” GOP version of the bill. This substitute contained many of the provisions that Democrats objected to last session, and then some. Note: because of the way the bill was introduced it’s technically an amendment, even though it was a whole new bill, so that’s what political reporters will call it. The Grassley VAWA was immediately voted down, and never had a chance of passing the Senate. Which he KNEW, but it did succeed in delaying the VAWA floor vote until next week. So, nice job obstructing Senate business, guys! Another banner day on the Hill. More details here.

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