Violence Against Women Act Debacle: Why Congress Should Be More Diverse

The 112th Congress's failure to renew the legislation shows why the Senate and House should better reflect the people of the United States.

Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Dianne Feinstein, and Patty Murray talk to reporters about reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in Washington on April 18, 2012 (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images)

In Washington, the new year isn't necessarily a fresh start—this January, it's a nagging reminder that time has run out for the 112th Congress, the most "do-nothing" group of legislators in decades, to accomplish some of their most important legislative priorities. In the last days of 2012 and the first hours of 2013, lawmakers rushed to find short-term solutions to scale the "cliffs" they created for themselves, and the rest of their unfinished to-do list remained undone. That's where the landmark Violence Against Women Act went to die.

VAWA, which has been reauthorized without fanfare since then-Senator Joe Biden spearheaded its passage in 1994, strengthens the criminal justice system's ability to address domestic and sexual abuse and expands services for Americans who have been victims of those crimes. But it expired in October of 2011 after conservative lawmakers balked at the addition of expanded protections for undocumented immigrant, Native American, and LGBT victims of sexual assault. The two chambers have butted heads over the bill for the past year—in May, the Republican-controlled House passed a watered down version to strip the protections for diverse populations, and subsequently refused to cede any ground to the Senate. The beginning of 2013 means the 112th Congress has officially failed to ensure protections for rape survivors. VAWA expired on its watch, and there's no more time to remedy that mistake.

That failure is a glaring mark on this outgoing Congress's unimpressive record, particularly because it's hard to find much about the domestic-violence prevention bill that seems difficult to support.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that someone is assaulted every two minutes in the U.S. (although that's probably an underestimation, since more than 50 percent of sexual assaults still go unreported), but progress has inched forward since VAWA was passed nearly two decades ago. More survivors now report incidents of sexual and domestic violence to the police than they did in the years before the law was in place—and VAWA funds training for about 500,000 law enforcement officials, judges, and prosecutors each year to help ensure that the legal system is better equipped to respond to those reports. The National Domestic Violence Hotline that the law established now receives over 22,000 calls every month. The rate of reported incidents of intimate-partner violence has dropped by more than 60 percent since VAWA was first enacted.

As the legislation hung in the balance this past year, Rep. Gwen Moore went to the House floor to recount the story of her own sexual assault to explain why this country needs VAWA. Moore said that as she watched Republican men begin to stall the reauthorization of the bill, "it brought up some terrible memories for me" of both the sexual abuse in her childhood and being raped as an adult. The man who date-raped her took her underwear to display as a prize to his friends, who had all bet him that she couldn't be "had." "This is what American women are facing," Moore explained.

But the sticking point for House Republicans—mostly, as Moore hinted at, Republican men—was diversity. "There are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition," Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions told the New York Times when the proposed amendments to expand protections to diverse communities began to stir up conservative opposition. Sessions didn't specify whether he was most opposed to allowing undocumented immigrants to claim temporary visas after suffering sexual abuse, including same-sex couples in domestic violence programming, or expanding tribal authority to prosecute domestic violence against Native American women. Or perhaps he found each provision equally distasteful because he believes immigrating to this country without a proper visa, being born gay or lesbian, and living on a Native American reservation represent crimes that supersede the crime of rape, somehow invalidate those individuals' right to be part of the national movement to address the epidemic levels of intimate partner violence.

It's hard to believe, almost painful to imagine, that Republicans like Sessions or Eric Cantor simply don't care about protecting rape victims, or want to prioritize some rape victims over others as more deserving of their support.

But they certainly don't understand what's at stake in the same way that Sen. Diane Feinstein made it clear that she does when she declared, "To defeat this bill is almost to say 'we don't need to consider violence against women—it's not an important issue.'" And they haven't spoken about their memories in the way that Gwen Moore has. They may not realize that American Indian women are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crime as the general population, but less likely to find an attorney willing to take their sexual assault case. They could be unaware that incidents of LGBT intimate partner violence increased by 18 percent in 2011, and people of color within that group were nearly four times as likely to experience physical violence.

And that could be partly due to the sad reality that Congress still remains much older, whiter, and more male than the general United States population. Of course, checking off boxes simply to pay lip service to "diversity" is a shallow, inadequate method of addressing any form of institutionalized inequality. But if we were to take a humble first stab at governing a steadily diversifying nation, we might want to start by filling the halls of Congress with people who have seen a world that their peers haven't, who can advocate for legislation that stirs their memories, who deeply understand diverse communities' risks, opportunities, and realities.

The 113th Congress, which gets sworn in today, will be the most diverse in our nation's history. It will include 19 new people of color, the first Hindu representative and the first Buddhist senator, the first openly gay congressman of color, the first openly bisexual congresswoman, the first openly gay senator, and more female members than ever before. It still doesn't come close to accurately representing the country it will govern. But it's better than what we had before—and where the 112th Congress failed, the 113th very well may succeed.

Sen. Patty Murray, who championed the original version of VAWA in the Senate, plans to reintroduce the legislation in the new session. Perhaps when she is joined by a new Congress and a historic freshman class, expanding the scope of domestic violence resources to include additional American populations won't spark quite as much controversy, and advocating for diverse communities won't be such a seemingly insurmountable task.