The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 20, 2013

Our View: Violence Against Women Act needs renewal

The Free Press

— In 1994, Congress overwhelmingly agreed that victims of domestic abuse and others needed special federal legislation, funding and protection.

Now, there appears to be some problem with that idea.

The U.S. Senate last week approved reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on a largely bipartisan vote of 78-22. The Senate renewed its effort of last year when it passed the bill on a similar bipartisan vote, but the lack of House action last year effectively killed the legislation.

Some House Republicans apparently object to some language in the bill that would allow sovereign Indian reservations to prosecute non-Indians for crimes of domestic violence. Proponents of the provision claim it has long been a loophole, allowing perpetrators of domestic violence to avoid prosecution altogether.

Some House members also apparently object to provisions in the bill that require protection of victims regardless of their sexual orientation. It would also expedite visa procedures for immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.

The opposition to these issues seem somewhat insignificant compared to what is lost without re-authorization. The act is the federal government's primary response to the issue of domestic violence and provides funding for safe houses, prosecution and training for law enforcement.

While opponents of the Native American jurisdiction provisions worry it will be an unconstitutional power grab, the provisions don't remove the power of county attorneys or other non-Indian agencies to pursue domestic violence charges against anyone. Proponents of the expanded authority argue many county attorneys don't want to pursue cases in geographical areas where they have no taxing authority, such as an Indian reservation.

House and Senate negotiators are discussing compromises that can be worked out on the constitutional questions, but discussions on the sexual orientation provisions appear to be idle.

Passed first in 1994 and reauthorized twice by Congress, the Violence Against Women Act has been credited with helping reduce the number of cases reported and increasing awareness of crimes of domestic violence. It has long been a bipartisan bill, with the initial bill in 1994 drawing 226 sponsors in the House and 68 in the Senate. It has been reauthorized by presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The current plan would allocate $659 million over five years for domestic violence initiatives including funding to combat sex trafficking. It also includes new provisions for combating and reporting sexual assaults on the nation's college campuses.

Speaker John Boehner needs to lead House Republicans in approving the re-authorization plan. The benefits far outweigh any purported drawbacks.