LAST MONDAY, MARCH 7TH marked the third anniversary of the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This landmark legislation, first passed in 1994, has been partly credited with a 67% reduction in domestic violence cases over the past two decades. The law was re-authorized easily with bipartisan support in 2000 and 2005, but when it was back on the table in 2012, it faced opposition in Congress. Though it was eventually re-authorized in 2013, there were several naysayers who stalled the process. Two of them are running for president.
On Monday, Representatives Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Kathy Castor (D-FL) participated in a press call to discuss the significance of the 2013 re-authorization of the VAWA, as well as to call out Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio for their opposition to the law. Slaughter was one of the original co-authors of the law in the early ’90s, and Castor joined in to point out that Rubio, the Florida senator who was campaigning in their state on Monday, was against it.
During the press call, Slaughter expressed her disdain for the silence across the GOP field on the issue of violence against women. She said: “Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio are very prominent in the debate on the Republican side of the presidential race. No one on that side has discussed violence against women. We should ask … Why should you be president if you will not protect the physical health of your constituents?”
What’s so important about the VAWA? And why did the senators oppose it?
The VAWA, 1994 to Now
The original VAWA of 1994 covered a lot of territory to prevent domestic violence, prosecute abusers, and provide services to victims. Some of its significant components included:
- establishing domestic violence as a federal crime
- treating spousal or date rape as seriously as stranger rape in courts;
- ensuring victims would not have to pay costs for medical examinations or criminal charges;
- disallowing the use of a victim’s past sexual behavior as evidence in a rape case;
- funding community educational programs to prevent rape and domestic abuse;
- establishing the National Domestic Violence Hotline;
- putting in place mandatory arrest protocols when officers have reasonable suspicion of abuse
- federally requiring that protection orders be honored in all states, regardless of where issued;
- training police and judicial members in what constitutes domestic violence;
- funding battered women’s shelters;
- making it less likely that undocumented immigrant women would face deportation if they reported abuse to law enforcement.
The VAWA was easily re-authorized in 2000 and 2005; the law was improved each time, bolstering protections for immigrants, victims of dating violence, Native Americans, and people of color.
The 2013 version of the law went further. “The 2013 re-authorization was meant not only to renew, but to update the law, to expand on the law,” Castor said during the press call. She explained that it featured an anti-discrimination clause for LGBT individuals, who had in some cases been denied access to shelters and other victims services; it went further than previous versions of the law to ensure undocumented immigrant women could have legal recourse against abusers without facing deportation; and it began a pilot program granting some Native American tribes judicial authority against non-Native men who abused Native American women. Previously, cases against non-Native men often went untried, a significant problem given that about 80% of Native American women who had been raped reported that their rapists were non-Native men. The 2013 VAWA also included measures to increase transparency about rates of sexual violence and stalking on college campuses.
Cruz’s and Rubio’s Statements
Rubio and Cruz were not alone in opposing the 2013 re-authorization of the VAWA. They, along with six other Senate Republicans, voted against even considering re-authorization of the law. When it did come up for vote in the Senate, it passed — but with 22 nay votes, in stark contrast with previous versions, which passed almost unanimously.
According to Think Progress, a spokeswoman for Cruz said:
For many years, Senator Cruz has worked in law enforcement, helping lead the fight to ensure that violent criminals – and especially sexual predators who target women and children – should face the very strictest punishment. However, stopping and punishing violent criminals is primarily a state responsibility, and the federal government does not need to be dictating state criminal law.
Based on that brief explanation, it’s unclear whether Cruz would have supported any version of the VAWA, all of which put in place federal regulations for the definition of domestic violence crimes, and for the arrest and prosecution of such crimes.
Rubio’s official statement is a bit more nuanced. He expressed support for re-authorizing previous versions of the bill, but voiced opposition to particular expansions under the 2013 version:
[T]his bill would mandate the diversion of a portion of funding from domestic violence programs to sexual assault programs, although there’s no evidence to suggest this shift will result in a greater number of convictions. These funding decisions should be left up to the state-based coalitions that understand local needs best, but instead this new legislation would put those decisions into the hands of distant Washington bureaucrats in the Department of Justice. Additionally, I have concerns regarding the conferring of criminal jurisdiction to some Indian tribal governments over all persons in Indian country, including non-Indians.
As with Cruz, Rubio advanced a states’ rights argument, but only for sexual assault programs, adding in opposition to expanding judicial authority to Native American tribes.
For Slaughter, Castor, and other supporters of the VAWA, women’s access to recourse against domestic and sexual violence wherever they are trumps the importance of states’ rights, and the 80% of Native American rape victims’ access to legal recourse outweighs jurisdictional concerns.
Representative Castor noted that the VAWA will be up for re-authorization in 2018, and expressed her concern for what would become of its important protections under either a Cruz or Rubio presidency – or under a Republican presidency in general. “The families I represent in Florida will not be very well-served if Senator Rubio or Senator Cruz is in the Oval Office,” she said. “We need a president who will fight for safer families and safer communities. The entire Republican field demonstrates that they will not do that.”