Violence Against Women Act Becomes Victim Of Political Gridlock

Native American woman

Via NPR, another way in which Washington legislators refusing to play nice with one another is undermining the health and safety of the American people. It seems political gridlock is partly to blame for Congress failuring to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act for the first time since 1994.

The law provides money to state and community police forces and social service groups for programs that combat domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. It was enacted in 1994 and has been reauthorized every five years since.

Last April, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the new Violence Against Women act with strong bipartisan support. But the House couldn’t reach an agreement, sending it into political limbo.

The biggest point of contention was a new provision that would have provided extra protection for Native American women living on reservations. According to NPR’s Carrie Johnson, statistics show women on reservations suffer violence most often at the hands of outsiders, not others on the reservation. But the tribal courts on reservations aren’t currently empowered to hear those cases, since they involve offenders from non-Native American communities.

“The Senate would have allowed that to happen for the first time,” said Johnson. But despite Vice President Joe Biden (a leading proponent of the act) stepping in, he and House Majority leader Eric Cantor couldn’t come to an agreement about the law.

“The central nature of the objection was never fully specified in public. But from what I’ve been able to figure out from talking to people on the Hill, people in the Justice Department and people in the victims’ advocacy community, it was this notion that expanding some jurisdiction for the tribal courts raised bigger questions about the authority of the tribal courts.

Some in Congress worried that expanding Native American tribal courts’ jurisdiction for one category (violence against women) would lead to expansions in other categories.

“Once you start changing the jurisdiction of those tribal courts, you could make an argument – and I think some House Republicans did – that there’s no limit there,” Johnson explained.

When you put it like that, votes against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act make more sense. It certainly seems plausible that expanding tribal courts’ jurisdiction to prosecute rape and sexual assault would have larger consequences, though I don’t know enough about law and order on Native American reservations to actually say (any legal minds want to weigh in?).

What I don’t understand, though, is why this provision was so important that its non-inclusion was deal-breaker for the law’s supporters. But maybe it wasn’t a deal-breaker, just a set-back. According to NPR, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi said reauthorization is a top priority, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VA, plans to introduce comprehensive new legislation soon.

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