On February 28th the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The vote was 286 to 138. The majority was comprised of 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans. All of the 138 negative votes were Republicans while 7 other Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, did not vote.
This House action came immediately after the House had rejected a weaker version offered by Minority Leader Eric Cantor, 166-257. The prevailing negative votes came from 197 Democrats and 60 Republicans.
This action is significant in several respects.
First, the Act includes for the first time protection of gay, bisexual or transgender female victims of domestic abuse and of Native American women who are victims of certain kinds of violence by non-Indian men.
As discussed in a prior post, I have been most concerned about the jurisdictional “black hole” that has prevented investigation and prosecution of abuse of Native women by non-Indian men, and the bill now passed by Congress remedies that defect.
Novelist and Native-American Louise Erdrich highlighted this jurisdictional problem in her novel The Round House, and she recently penned an op-ed article in the New York Times that countered criticisms of the tribal courts jurisdictional provision in this bill.
Erdrich said the “Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape. Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. [In addition’] . . . a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.”
Moreover, according to Erdrich, the “Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas . . . [and another source] has found that rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season.”
Erdrich also defends the abilities and fairness of tribal courts against the charge that they would be unfair to non-Indian defendants. She says,“Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.” In addition, “[t]ribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions . . . that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.”
Erdrich’s comments are echoed in a New York Times editorial that stated, “Violence and crime rage unchecked in Indian country, yet the federal government, the primary law enforcer on reservations, is investigating and prosecuting fewer violent felonies, and reducing financing for tribal courts and public-safety programs. That is a scandal . . . . [and] a moral atrocity.”
Second, the House Republican leadership permitted the Senate version to come to the floor even though it did not have the support of a majority of the Republican members. This was a “violation” of the so-called unofficial Hastert Rule established by a previous Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, whereby the Republican majority would only bring to the floor for a vote measures that were supported by a “majority of the majority.” Moreover, this was the third time this year that the Hastert Rule has not been followed. The other occasions were a bill to avert automatic tax increases and a bill providing relief for states hit by Hurricane Sandy.
Although this three-time refusal to follow the Hastert Rule upsets at least some of the more conservative Republican Representatives, I applaud Speaker Boehner’s acting as a Speaker of the entire House of Representatives, not just the Republican caucus. I hope that he continues to do so or that a truly bipartisan Speaker replaces him.
It must also be noted that allowing the VAWA bill to come to the floor for a vote and to be passed is a reversal of longstanding House Republican opposition to the bill. This change is seen as a recognition by at least some of the House GOP leadership that the party needed to try to repair its standing among women, who gave the Democrats a substantial margin of victory in the 2012 election. Apparently 13 Republican Representatives who are announced or likely candidates for the Senate in 2014 disagree with this political judgment as they voted against VAWA on Thursday.
Immediately after the House action President Obama expressed his approval of the House action:“Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community. I want to thank leaders from both parties . . . for everything they’ve done to make this happen. Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”
Vice President Biden also applauded the House and thanked “the leaders from both parties . . . and the bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate” for passage of the bill.