One Year After VAWA’s Expiration And Counting: House Leaders Still ‘Splitting Hairs’ Over Rape Victims

One year ago, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expired. Since 1994, this landmark legislation has been funding clinics, shelters, and hotlines for victims in crisis across the country, and provided tremendously important tools for law enforcement to crack down on abusers and rapists. Over the past year, VAWA has trained 500,000 law enforcement officers and judicial officials, and provided a national crisis hotline that served 264,000 victims. So why do victims and service providers find themselves one year later without the certainty of a renewed law? Some in the House are still trying to figure out which victims deserve its protection.

“Rape is rape and there’s no splitting hairs over rape.” That’s what Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential running mate, said in an interview about an abortion funding bill he cosponsored that tried to split hairs by defining “forcible” rape. But Reps. Ryan, Todd Akin, and their colleagues in the House are splitting hairs over something much more dangerous for rape victims: which women deserve protection and services under VAWA. Originally passed in 1994 as the first and only comprehensive bill to combat rape and domestic violence, VAWA has been reauthorized unanimously by Congress in 2000 and 2005. For years, protecting women from rape and domestic violence has been the issue too important to argue about for Congress: until now.

After passing the Senate in April by a now-rare supermajority of 68, including every female senator, the House stopped the bill in its tracks. And, there’s not much time left for the House to act in the 112th Congress. But, why block a bill that protects women from rape? According to the House, some victims aren’t legitimate enough. After a grueling full day committee meeting, the House Judiciary Committee stripped improved provisions out of the Senate bill protecting Native American, LGBT and immigrant victims. During the meeting, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking minority member, offered an amendment to restore the inclusive Senate provisions, but Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) wouldn’t even allow a vote on it.

The full House hastily passed their version of the bill in May on a narrow vote of 222–205, parsing out Native American, LGBT and immigrant victims. What now? Instead of passing the bipartisan Senate bill and sending it to the president, House leadership have dug in their heels and continue to let the bill languish over a fight about who deserves protection. Leadership in the House can pass this bill as soon as they get back from recess and send it to the president. It’s solely in their court. No one in Congress should be splitting hairs about rape, or which women are “legitimate” victims to receive support and services.