Idle on Domestic Violence

Terry H,. Schwadron

April 16, 2021

Among the bills sitting in the Senate in hopes of finding a majority is a re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which was a popular measure when it first passed in 1994, but now has run into the partisan gridlock in Washington.

Still, this one actually has some Republican support that could push it beyond the 60-vote requirement for passage — but for its nasty reference to stop individuals from buying a gun who has been convicted of domestic abuse or stalking partners. It also and extends definitions of gun prohibitions to dating partners — the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”

So, it’s a gun-control measure, a red flag if you will, to some would-be opponents as well as a cultural affront to others.

In the House version of the bill passed last month, specific coverage was added to include immigrant, LGBTQ and Native American women and communities of color, something that Republicans have derided as pushing a partisan agenda.

Plus, there is Sen. Jodi Ernst, R-Iowa, who otherwise supports the bill, who dislikes a clause that funds restorative justice programs that allow an abuser to negotiate with their victim to seeking accountability. In a USA Today op-ed,Ernst said that might work in middle school, but not in real life where it puts the responsibility of stopping abuse on the survivor.

Just for background, the law was last reauthorized in 2013 (following re-authorizations in 2000 and 2005), but it lapsed at the end of 2018 after Congress failed to act over the same partisan disputes over guns and transgender coverage. Nevertheless, most of its programs here have been running on specific finance measures despite the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act.

As president, Joe Biden has said re-authorization providing resources for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence is a top legislative achievement.

Aside from the gun issue, the point of the bill is to invest in programs for domestic violence prevention, strengthening the criminal justice response to gender-based violence, improving the health care system’s response to domestic violence and basically to stop dating or domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Of course, the majority in the House, which included Republicans, did acknowledge that victims might not be citizens or even biologically born women.

The House bill expanded protections for victims’ and survivors’ financial security, including housing protections and anti-discrimination protections in the workplace — all ideas that both parties say they support, and have done in the past.

The Snags

Still, if you’re looking for reasons to build Repulican opposition, you can do so. So, naturally, Republicns led by Ernst, want to rewrite the bill to take out anything beyond what it had been in 1994, when its chief sponsor was Biden. Rates of domestic violence declined by more than 50% between 1993 and 2008, after the passage of VAWA, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Periodically, Congress must re-authorize the act to update its grant programs and possibly to strengthen the law based on what victims, survivors and advocates say are gaps in services to vulnerable populations.

When this same reauthorization issue arose in 2019, the Senate stopped it over the gun issue. That year, the National Rifle Association opposed the legislation for the first time, making Republicans choose between voting against women or voting against a piece of gun-control. They chose to support guns.

This year’s version also strengthens protections for transgender women to access women’s shelters and proposes that they serve time in prisons that match their gender identity. Clearly, this runs right into Republican culture wars. It now includes language to make it a federal crime to distribute sexually explicit images without consent, known as revenge porn. Former Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., who resigned from Congress in 2019 after her ex-husband publicly shared nude images of her without her consent, personally lobbied her former colleagues to roll revenge porn legislation into the VAWA bill.

Advocates for the bill say both the gun and the transgender provisions are needed to ensure that survivors stay alive. Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, the lead Republican sponsor, told NPR that the bill “addresses the challenges identified by survivors and by domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and other organizations that serve survivors,” though colleagues said the additions will kill the bill in the Senate. Ernst, for example, says the inclusion of guns “is a big one for a number of us, some stripping away of people’s constitutional rights is not something that we should be doing,” she said.

The Good News

The good news here is that a bipartisan majority agrees that domestic violence should not be viewed more as crime than acceptable, behind-closed-doors private matter between husband and wife. As Ernst, who has spoken of personal history with abuse, says, victims were often told to just deal with it — weathering the emotional and physical impacts of abuse alone — sometimes even being blamed for causing the strife. Resources and services were scarce, and women had nowhere to turn.

Since its inception, VAWA has strengthened local, state, tribal, and federal responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Because of this important legislation, women now have places to turn for support. But Ernst sees Democrats as trying to “hijack” the bill for partisan extensions on gun control and sexual orientation.

Despite having Biden in the White House, we find ourselves much in the same place as in 2019 with a House version and the Senate coming up with one of their own bill because they don’t like the House bill. Senate Democrats need to come up with something that can get 60 votes to clear a filibuster.

Biden has urged Senate action, stressing that the coronavirus and economic crises have fueled an increase in domestic abuse.

It’s a good test of whether the Senate can act when it even finds itself in basic agreement.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer