The U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Toni Smith, USGS. Public domain

WASHINGTON — For decades, the Violence Against Women Act was an issue that could transcend partisan politics on Capitol Hill. 

Not anymore. 

The landmark law — first passed in 1994 to protect victims of domestic crimes — funds programs like rape crisis centers, shelters and legal services to victims of domestic abuse. 

But after several unsuccessful attempts to reauthorize the legislation, it lapsed last February amid partisan sniping in Washington, and advocates warn that critical programs will be in jeopardy if it’s not renewed. 

“Letting VAWA expire and not taking steps to reauthorize it is a missed opportunity to prevent sexual violence and assault, and save lives,” said Allison Randall, vice president for policy and emerging issues for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. 

The U.S. House passed legislation to reauthorize the law last April, but efforts have stalled in the U.S. Senate. 

Since President Bill Clinton signed VAWA into law in 1994, the landmark legislation has significantly shifted responses to and support for victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, creating reliable judicial pathways for redress. The measure is credited with reducing the rate of domestic violence in the United States by over 60 percent, earning it consistent bipartisan support. 

But that support faltered last year, when House Democrats added a number of provisions to their bill that would broaden the legislation’s gun restrictions, drawing pushback from the National Rifle Association (NRA). 

Currently, those convicted of domestic abuse can be denied access to firearms only if they have been married to their victim, have a child with their victim, live with their victim, or are the legal guardian of their victim. The measure does not extend to dating or intimate relationships, which account for a significant amount of abuse cases. 

Democrats and a number of Republicans want to close this so-called “boyfriend loophole,” given that victims of domestic violence, regardless of marital status, are five times more likely to be killed if their abusers have access to a gun, according to Giffords Law Center, a gun safety group.

While VAWA’s authorization expired, Congress has continued to appropriate funds for its programs, which are administered by the Department of Justice. For fiscal 2020, Congress allotted $502.5 million, up from $497.5 million for fiscal 2019. 

But Randall of the National Network to End Domestic Violence said a failure to enact the House bill “does impact victims whose lives would have been saved if the loophole had been closed or who might have been able to get emergency housing to escape an abuser or get emergency services after that allowed them to heal.” 

During floor debate last year, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) emphasized that point. 

“The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk — hear me — increases the risk of homicide by 500 percent,” he said. “That is why we aim to close gun loopholes by expanding the definition of intimate partners to include dating or former dating partners.” 

Despite opposition from gun-rights advocates who said the bill infringes on Second Amendment rights, the expanded measure sailed through the House last year, with 33 Republicans crossing the aisle to vote in its favor. The bill also strengthened protections for vulnerable Native American populations and those in the LGBTQ community. 

Senate stalemate

But VAWA negotiations have stalled in the Senate, where Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is leading Republican negotiations, called the House provision a “non-starter.” 

Critics said the vulnerable incumbent (who’s facing reelection this fall) and her party are catering to NRA lobbyists, prioritizing access to gun purchases over women’s safety.

Ernst had received over $3.1 million in financial support from the NRA as of Oct. 2017 — the seventh-most of any senator at that time — according to an analysis published in The New York Times based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Ernst, however, said that it was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) who walked away from the negotiating table. She said she and Feinstein had made “real progress” before their negotiations fell apart, accusing Democrats of playing partisan politics. 

“In typical partisan fashion, Senate Democrats, at Minority Leader [Chuck] Schumer’s direction, walked away from the table, halting our discussions,” she said last year. “Election year politics are in full swing and, once again, Democrats are putting politics ahead of people, ahead of survivors.” 

Ernst opted instead to introduce her own VAWA legislation, prompting a feud with Schumer. Ernst accused the New York Democrat of halting her bill to thwart her reelection campaign, Politico reported

Schumer, meanwhile, said that Ernst “is simply afraid of the NRA.” He said Ernst should push Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “to bring the House-passed bill to the Senate floor for debate. 

The Iowa Republican’s version of the bill has also gotten some criticism from organizations in her home state. 

In an op-ed published in the Des Moines Register, Johna Sullivan, executive director for Crisis Intervention & Advocacy Center, wrote that while Ernst’s bill would increase funding for programs like hers, it would do a lot of damage elsewhere. 

“It also rolls back existing protections for LGBTQ nondiscrimination provisions; fails to protect Native survivors; cuts important enhancements for under-served communities overall in rape education and prevention, violence reduction and youth programs; and fails to address the epidemic of gun violence against victims of domestic violence,” Sullivan wrote. 

“We hope Ernst’s constituents will remind her that this is not the bill survivors in Iowa need or deserve.” 

Ernst’s spokesperson Brendan Conley said this issue is very personal for Ernst, as she herself is a survivor of domestic violence. Ernst said last year that she was raped in college and that her ex-husband had verbally and physically assaulted her.

Conley said Ernst remains committed to working with Feinstein on a bipartisan proposal. 

“The two are continuing to have discussions and our staffs have also continued to meet, even as recently as just last week,” he said in an email. “Senator Ernst has really appreciated working with Senator Feinstein and has called her a ‘tremendous partner,’ so she remains hopeful they can find common ground on some solutions.” 

But bipartisan compromise on the issue appears unlikely in the near term, given the partisan tensions surrounding the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump and sparring ahead of the 2020 elections. 

“It’s all strange these days in the Senate where nothing really gets done,” said Jocelyn Frye, senior fellow with the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. “It’s anyone’s guess what will happen.” 

Frye said while funding is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, the stagnation on reauthorization sends the message that Congress does not take gender-based violence seriously. It creates an atmosphere of insecurity for programs that rely on VAWA funding and therefore might encourage anemic operations as opposed to the development of creative and expansive methods for ending domestic violence, she said. 

“It’s appalling that the law has been expired for as long as it has; it’s unforgivable,” she said. “And it’s a real loss for survivors.”