Nobody wants to be the bully that looks like they condone domestic violence. Yet the disputes that have made the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) a political hot potato just heightens the perception that politicians are legislating a war against women.
Just imagine how it would look to a person who has been completely out of the news cycle for the last six months. (Maybe the last decade?) If one researched statements from Rush Limbaugh, Eric Cantor, pro-life and evangelical activist groups and the like, there is plenty of damning discourse. For years there has been a laser like focus on passing any possible restriction on the legal service of abortion. Uncompromising language that anyone who wants affordable access to contraception is immoral, even slutty, hit the headlines. This cascaded into a broader one ups man ship on who can be most against Planned Parenthood. Now there are politicians and far right opinion makers, opposing the renewal of VAWA.
In February 2012 the House Judiciary Committee voted to move the renewal to the House Floor. The vote was unique for VAWA. Since its inception in 1994 this social justice tool has enjoyed exceptional bipartisan support. This year all Democrats on the Committee voted to advance it. All Republicans voted against it. This blindsided the advocates for victims of domestic violence.
And according to the Republicans who voted against the bill, the Democrats “made them do it.” Those activists have been oh so clever in their quest to make Republicans look misogynistic or like “sexist Neanderthals” as one anti-VAWA blogger put it.
Why did this year’s version of VAWA excite so much vitriol? It has an amendment extending its protections to groups that have been favorite scapegoats of ultra conservatives, including gays, lesbians and undocumented immigrants. The movement to fight domestic violence (pun intended) has adopted the phrase “intimate partner violence” to encompass violence between any two partners in an intimate relationship. They could be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They could be battered immigrants seeking temporary visas escaping a country where violence against women is acceptable. They could be Native Americans who are not on a reservation. These protections have become the stuff of “they made me do it” grievances.
Some Republicanswho voted against the new VAWA bill claim it is only a political tool intended to make it impossible for their party to vote for it. Sen. Jeff Sessions complained, “You think they might have put things in there we couldn’t support that maybe then they could accuse you of not being supportive of fighting violence against women?” Sen. Chuck Grassley has accused Democrats of adding specialized provisions about same-sex partner violence, immigration and Native American jurisdictional issues that are “not consensus items,” to make Republicans look pro-domestic violence.
The current version of the VAWA Reauthorization bill was introduced in November, 2011 by a member of each party. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont drafted the amended bill, undermining the message that it is a deliberate minefield for Republicans. Sixteen of the seventeen women in the Senate – Democrats and Republicans – signed on as sponsors
Even so, it’s debatable that Democrats are pure in their response to the Republican rhetoric. They have pounced on the Republicans’ opposition to VAWA to fertilize the growing concern that there is a general war against women. “Not to reauthorize this is a tragedy,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday. “This is one more step in the removal of rights for women.”
Having said that, the chain of events described earlier did set conservative politicians up to look anti-women’s rights and they did that all on their own. When they couch their opposition by saying the bill does not need to protect gays or undocumented immigrants explicitly they sound like violence against some people is okay. Perhaps they should just stand with others to say that any violence is unacceptable.
Making VAWA another bloody battleground between the two parties is the latest evidence that our country can’t take a moment to develop sound public policy. When VAWA was first passed in 1994 it sent the message that violence within the home is just as criminal as violence anywhere else. The bill also recognizes the special dimensions of domestic violence that justify special protection, standardizing the laws to issue restraining orders against abusers, for example.
As social policy VAWA institutionalized our country’s values that intimate partners are not chattel to be misused. It sets America apart from cultures where women are thrown out of their homes if they are raped, or husbands can legally kill their wives. This set of values should not be up for discussion, even if it costs a few political points.