Zero Republicans Have Backed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act

The Violence Against Women Act is a landmark piece of legislation that serves to protect women from sexual and physical abuse. It's at risk of expiring soon, and a new bill to reauthorize it is lacking support from Republicans.

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Oct 4 2018, 6:50pm

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee released an unvetted statement from a former TV meteorologist who claimed to have been involved in a brief relationship with Julie Swetnick, a woman who came forward last week with a sworn declaration saying that Kavanaugh was present at a house party in 1982 where she was allegedly gang-raped. Kavanaugh denies that claim.

In Dennis Ketterer’s statement, which is available on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s website, the one-time congressional candidate said he first met Swetnick at a Washington, DC bar in the 1990s, noting that his initial impression was that she was a “high end call girl.” Ketterer alleged that Swetnick told him she enjoyed group sex and “wanted to know if that would be ok in our relationship.”

Ketterer also noted that although they’d only spoken for a couple of weeks and did not have sexual intercourse, Swetnick never mentioned Kavanaugh or being raped in any capacity. He said he felt compelled to come forward to “tell the truth of what I knew” because he thought Kavanaugh was being “mischaracterized” during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s emotional testimony. By his own account, he does not personally known Kavanaugh.

Beyond being unusual for a congressional committee to release an unconfirmed statement, it’s also “patently offensive,” says Jennifer Becker, deputy legal director at Legal Momentum, a nonprofit working on behalf of legal rights of women.

Particularly, she says because lawmakers have yet to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which, among other things, strives to protect survivors of sexual violence from having their prior sexual history used against them.

VAWA was once described as “one of the most effective pieces of legislation enacted to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.” Slated to expire on September 30, the law was extended through a continuing resolution that kept the government funded through December 7. What happens after that date is unclear. The pieces that need to be reauthorized are VAWA-funded grant programs that offer services to victims and help hold offenders accountable.

“What’s going on right now is disheartening,” Becker says. “The Senate confirmation process flies in the face of everything that VAWA does and intends to do for survivors.”

On September 21, the steering committee of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence sent Senate leaders a scathing letter about the way lawmakers have navigated Dr. Ford’s allegations prior to her testimony. “This, of all times, is the moment for your offices to demonstrate the great progress we have made as a country in our response to victims of gender-based violence,” the letter stated. “Instead, your actions and comments in the past week have taken us back 25 years, as if VAWA never existed, as if all of the hard-won, evidence-based, best practices we have invested in as a nation were for naught. How can Congress legislate a coordinated community response for the nation, yet fail to live up to its own mandate?”

Currently, there are two bills introduced in the House that address VAWA. In September, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik filed a bill that would extend the law as is for another six months.

And there is a pending bill that offers a long-term reauthorization. In July, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2018, which renews funding and includes a few targeted fixes, such as expanding gun control laws and additional provisions to address housing for victims of domestic violence and stalking.

To date, no Republicans have signed on to support the Democrats’ reauthorization bill.

“The need for services is constantly increasing,” Becker says, “and so what’s at stake if these programs aren’t reauthorized and the appropriation levels aren’t expanded is that all of the survivors who need those services won’t get them.”

Symbolically, she continues, we’re living in a moment where many survivors don’t feel they have a safe space to come forward, despite the outpouring of support from the Me Too movement. That goes against everything VAWA has worked toward, Becker says. “Not reauthorizing VAWA with these meaningful improvements that reflect the needs of survivors is even more of a statement that you won’t be believed if you come forward. That’s going to mean lives lost.”