A landmark piece of federal legislation aimed at protecting women from violent crimes seems to be a low priority for the 115th Congress.
The Violence Against Women Act was included in a defense and health spending bill passed last month. However, it was only granted a short-term reauthorization until Dec. 7.
“It should absolutely be prioritized, Congress should be engaging in a real way with sexual assault advocates,” said Terri Poore, the policy director for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “This extension is just kicking the can down the road till after the election.”
In 1994, then-Sen. Joe Biden drafted VAWA during the aftermath of the Anita Hill hearings. It passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives as a part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, and it was signed by President Bill Clinton.
The law set aside funding for investigations into violent crimes associated with domestic and sexual violence designed to end violence against women. VAWA also financed legal aid, funded shelters for victims, provided federal grants for advocacy groups helping domestic violence survivors and toughened federal charges for abusers.
In 1991, Hill alleged that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her when they worked together at the United States Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Now, 27 years later, another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, is facing allegations of sexual assault. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleged Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were teenagers in the early 1980s.
Biden, who is considering a bid for president in 2020, was criticized for how he handled the Hill and Thomas hearings when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. His role in the 1991 hearings has come under scrutiny again in the midst of Ford and Kavanaugh hearings.
Each time reauthorization nears, advocacy groups work together through the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence to do extensive outreach to learn what parts of VAWA are working and what needs improving. Updates are always necessary to ensure that the programs are effective, Poore said.
“We had been making progress with Congress on getting the reauthorization approved, so it’s pretty disappointing to just get this short-term extension,” Poore said.
That being said, Poore said she is hopeful that they will get the full reauthorization approved eventually. Demand for services like rape and sexual assault support has skyrocketed recently and the funding can’t meet those needs, she said.
Since 1994, the act was reauthorized in 2000, 2005 and 2013. The law expired for two years, from 2011 to 2013, when conservative Republicans objected to new provisions.
But, during that lapsed period, VAWA programs continued to receive funding, since the budgeting process for the relevant programs covered under the law is separate from reauthorization.
When VAWA was up for reauthorization in 2011, Republican lawmakers were against extending protections to immigrants, Native American women and the LGBTQ community.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) sponsored the expanded version, which was eventually passed in 2013. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were among the Republicans who co-sponsored the bill, but it was met with resistance from a handful of notable Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who, at the time, was the senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was against the new provisions and offered a stripped-down version that failed in the Senate. Grassley accused the added provisions of being too political and losing focus on helping victims.
Of those in office in 2013 who are currently on the Senate Judiciary Committee, only the Democrats, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Crapo voted in favor of reauthorization.
In 1994, Grassley, the current chairman of the committee, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a committee member, also voted against the original legislation. Both senators were on the judiciary committee during the Hill and Thomas hearings in 1991. The other remaining members of the committee who were in office in 2013 voted against its reauthorization.
In 2012, Murkowski said the Republican Party was at risk of being painted as “antiwoman” if members didn’t support the legislation.
President Barack Obama signed the 2013 version. VAWA now grants temporary visas to undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence, extends protections to Native American women and includes domestic violence cases for LGBTQ couples. The bill also expanded the definition of violence against women to include stalking.
Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was also against the 2013 reauthorization. He too said the new additions were more political than helpful. Earlier this year, Sessions, now attorney general, made it nearly impossible for asylum seekers who are victims of domestic violence to gain access to the U.S. by citing fears of expanding existing definitions of asylum status to “private violence.”
The re-authorization of the 2013 version was the focus of heavy lobbying. Nearly 60 organizations funded lobbying efforts supporting or opposing the bill, including groups working on behalf of Native American tribes and immigrant rights associations.
This year’s version was a House bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). Jackson Lee expanded the law to allow law enforcement officials to take weapons from domestic abusers who legally can’t own them. The new version also significantly increased funding for rape crisis centers.
Out of 173 cosponsors on the bill, not a single one is a Republican.
So far this year there haven’t been any reported lobbying efforts for reauthorization. The law expired Sept. 30 and will be at risk of lapsing again come December.
Last month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan expressing her anger at the temporary reauthorization.
“Republicans’ decision to include only a short-term VAWA re-authorization in the must-pass minibus spending bill is nothing short of an abdication of our responsibilities to women in our country,” Pelosi said.
Researcher Grace Haley contributed to this report.