Bipartisan outrage erupted in the House last week, with usually loyal Republicans among the most furious and outspoken in the GOP-controlled chamber. Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican, chastised House leaders for conduct that is “absolutely inexcusable . . . absolutely indefensible.” Declaiming that “we cannot just walk away from our responsibilities,” King said that “anyone . . . who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds.”
Outside the House, another outspoken Republican, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, pointed the finger squarely at his party and the Speaker of the House:
There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner . . . This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. . . . We respond to innocent victims . . . , not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans. Or at least we did until last night. Last night, politics was placed before oaths to serve our citizens. For me, it was disappointing and disgusting to watch.
The object of their criticism was the House’s failure to pass bipartisan legislation, already approved in the Senate, that would grant financial relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Their words, however, could apply with equal vehemence and accuracy to the House’s other major year-end failure — its refusal to vote on renewing and expanding the Violence against Women Act.
VAWA, as it’s known, has been an undeniable success since signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton under the sponsorship of then Senator (now Veep) Joe Biden. The incidence of domestic violence has dropped 67% from 1993 to 2010, and, according to the White House, from 1993 to 2007, “the rate of intimate partner homicides of females decreased 35 percent and the rate of intimate partner homicides of males decreased 46 percent.”
The House GOP, led by its Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, opposed various elements of the VAWA-extender bill that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate: the bill’s provision of domestic violence protections to members of the LBGT community and undocumented immigrants, and a section that gives American Indian tribes jurisdiction over non-Native defendants in cases alleging domestic or dating violence.
The House version that purported to reauthorize VAWA (HR 4970) would have harshly restricted the immigration-related protections of the law. As the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence against Women explains, there are several key failings of HR 4970:
Section 801 eliminates crucial confidentiality protections for victims in the VAWA self-petition and cancellation of removal processes who are married to U.S. citizen or Legal Permanent Resident spouses. By requiring notification to the alleged abuser that his/her spouse has filed a VAWA self-petition, this endangers victims (many of whom may still be living with an abusive spouse since their options are extremely limited as a result of their undocumented status). It would also allow abusers to continue to manipulate the immigration process as a tool of abuse by providing them an opportunity to block her access to legal status. Additionally, it creates duplicative and unnecessary bureaucracy by dispersing VAWA adjudications from specially trained officers in a centralized unit, and increases barriers to safety for vulnerable victims by imposing a stricter standard for approval of VAWA cases than for other forms of humanitarian relief under immigration law.
Section 802 imposes arbitrary and unreasonable barriers for victims, and undermines the law enforcement purpose of the U visa, by narrowly restricting the circumstances in which law enforcement certifications can be issued.
Section 806 discourages crime victims from cooperating with law enforcement, especially in complex or dangerous criminal investigations or prosecutions, and eliminates stability for vulnerable crime victims by terminating their eligibility for permanent residence.
Section 814 burdens victims and existing state criminal court processes addressing domestic violence by discouraging plea bargaining. Because this provision will allow evidence outside the criminal conviction record in determining if someone is deportable due to a domestic violence conviction, it will be impossible for defendants to know whether to accept a plea. The resulting additional criminal trials will result in more victims being forced to face their abusers in criminal cases and most likely, more abusers who do not face any type of conviction when victims are fearful of appearing in criminal cases.
Sections 803 and 804 . . . omit critical amendments that were included in S. 1925 [the Senate bill] to prevent serial abuse and exploitation of so-called “mail-order brides” and other immigrating foreign spouses and fiancé(e)s of US citizens, as well as abuse of the visa system.
When the GOP hue and cry over Sandy burst out, John Boehner and Eric Cantor quickly took steps to make amends. On January 4, the House passed a bill (with the Senate also concurring) that set aside $9.7 billion in relief for regions that Sandy devastated. On January 15, Speaker John Boehner reportedly will bring up a vote for $51 billion more in Sandy relief measures, as requested by President Obama.
Where is the outrage over VAWA? With Republicans claiming to have heard and now to understand the increasingly pro-female and pro-immigrant voices of the new electorate, the VAWA debacle suggests that the GOP is still clueless. Are the “innocent victims” of domestic violence any less deserving than the post-Sandy constituents who will soon get relief?
Channeling Peter King and Chris Christie, I say it is “absolutely inexcusable . . . absolutely indefensible” for the House GOP to have “walk[ed] away from [their] responsibilities. . .” to victims of domestic violence. “This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. . . . We respond to innocent victims . . . , not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans. Or at least we did until last [week]. Last [week], politics was placed before oaths to serve our citizens. For me, it was disappointing and disgusting to watch.”
America is a forgiving and tolerant nation — to a degree. The House GOP needs to wake up quickly, and pass a bill reauthorizing VAWA in the image and likeness of last term’s Senate version. Or else this party of “angry white guy[s]” will only hasten its flight to irrelevance.