WASHINGTON ― Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is single-handedly blocking legislation that would help abused Native women, and from the looks of it, it’s because of a relatively small provision that he’s prepared to kill the entire bill over.
Goodlatte, who is retiring this month, is holding up a bill known as Savanna’s Act, which would improve the federal government’s response to the unbelievably high rates of missing and murdered Native women. The statistics on violence directed at Native women are stunning: 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetime, and in some counties, they are murdered at 10 times the national average.
The bill doesn’t cost any additional federal money; it primarily increases communication between federal, state, local and tribal officials and strengthens crime data collection.
The bill passed the Senate this month in a unanimous vote. It would sail through the House, too, if Goodlatte wasn’t holding it up. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could go around Goodlatte and give it a vote if they felt strongly enough about it. But because Goodlatte chairs the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill, they’re deferring to him.
With Congress set to adjourn as soon as Friday night, the legislation is on the verge of expiring without action. That would mean lawmakers would have to start all over again in the new Congress, with committee hearings and votes in both chambers. And the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), won’t be around anymore.
So why is Goodlatte blocking this? His office has repeatedly refused to give details. On Monday, a Judiciary Committee aide said only, “We have been working on this bill in order to advance it, including working with DOJ and stakeholders to address issues with the language.”
Heitkamp, who lost her re-election in November, has been lobbying Goodlatte all week to let her bill get a vote, even posting his office phone number on Twitter in an effort to publicly pressure him. Her state desperately needs more laws like this: the rate of violence directed at Native women is so high in North Dakota, she said, that almost everyone in Indian Country personally knows someone who has gone missing or been murdered.
“It’s horrifying,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “If that was the case across the entire country, there would be a national call to action to address this issue. But it’s hidden in tribal communities. No more. I will not let that continue to happen.”
While Goodlatte won’t say what his problem is with the bill, House and Senate aides tell HuffPost it’s related to a provision involving federal law enforcement grants.
The bill would require the Justice Department to give preference to states, localities or tribes that want to apply for those grants and use them to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native women. It doesn’t require the Justice Department to give grants to them; it’s more of an incentive to get local and tribal law enforcement to apply for grants for this issue.
Goodlatte wants that language out, say House and Senate aides, because he says it would disadvantage grant applications from law enforcement agencies that don’t have significant Native American populations in their jurisdictions.
Here’s the bill’s actual language on the “preference” provision:
A Heitkamp aide said she made it clear to Goodlatte days ago that taking out the “preference” section was a nonstarter, since the whole point is to create an incentive for state, local and tribal law enforcement to implement the guidelines in Savanna’s Act. But Goodlatte won’t budge on it. And apparently, he’s prepared to tank the entire bill over it.
“That isn’t good-faith negotiation,” said his aide.
With time running out, Heitkamp is planning to use her final days in the Senate to pressure Goodlatte to just let the bill get a vote.
“We are so close to getting Savanna’s Act across the finish line and we must make sure these women are no longer invisible,” Heitkamp said in a Wednesday night statement. “Rep. Goodlatte and House Republicans should trust the 100 senators who helped pass my bill two weeks ago in the Senate so it can pass in the House in the next two days and we can get it signed into law. That’s what Native communities deserve.”