Senate Republicans Unveil Violence Against Women Act That Hurts Tribes

It rolls back crucial protections for Native women. It also strips out LGBTQ protections and a gun safety provision.
Sen. Joni Ernst is taking heat for introducing a revised Violence Against Women Act that would weaken protections for Native Americans.
Sen. Joni Ernst is taking heat for introducing a revised Violence Against Women Act that would weaken protections for Native Americans.

WASHINGTON ― After months of delays, Senate Republicans finally unveiled their bill to renew the Violence Against Women Act, a vital 1994 law that lapsed this past February.

It’s landing with a thud.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the bill’s sponsor and a survivor of domestic violence herself, introduced the bill late on Wednesday. She touted provisions that would “holistically” address female genital mutilation, bolster housing protections for survivors of violence and empower targets of revenge porn. You can read her bill here.

“Reauthorizing VAWA shouldn’t be a partisan issue ― we should be putting the wellbeing of women and children of sexual and domestic violence first,” Ernst said in a statement. “That’s what this bill does; it’s a practical solution that focuses on survivors, not politics.”

But her bill is already facing criticism for what’s not in it. For starters, it strips out a key gun safety provision that was included in the VAWA bill that passed the House in April.

Under current federal law, people convicted of domestic violence offenses against spouses or family members can lose their gun rights. The House VAWA bill, which passed with bipartisan support, would add people convicted of abusing their dating partners to that category, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” It would also prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor stalking offenses, as well as abusers subject to temporary protective orders, from owning or buying firearms.

The National Rifle Association has been pressuring Republicans to oppose the gun safety provision and warned that a vote in favor of it would negatively affect lawmakers’ NRA rating. The gun language is nowhere to be seen in Ernst’s bill.

“Months ago, the House passed a bipartisan Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act with strong protections for survivors who are threatened by armed domestic abusers. Yet the Senate majority’s only response, after all this time, is a bill that maintains easy access to firearms for individuals with a record of threatening behavior and criminal convictions,” said Robin Lloyd of Giffords, a nonprofit focused on gun violence. “It’s unbelievable and unacceptable that we’re in this place today where some of our elected leaders care more about protecting domestic abusers than they do victims.”

Ernst’s bill also leaves out a House provision explicitly stating that VAWA grant recipients would be allowed to train staff in stopping discrimination against LGBTQ victims of abuse, an area where there has apparently been confusion.

“Placing paternalistic restrictions on tribal courts in the name of ‘due process’ is nothing more than a disguise for prejudice.”

- Mary Kathryn Nagle of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center

Most alarmingly, the GOP bill would leave Native women, who face appallingly high levels of violence, less protected from their abusers by weakening tribal courts and infringing on tribal sovereignty, according to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC).

Ernst’s bill would put restrictions on tribal courts that go beyond those imposed on federal and state courts, including unnecessary audits by the U.S. attorney general, NIWRC said. It would also eliminate gains made in the 2013 VAWA reauthorization that gave tribes badly needed jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native men who abuse Native women on tribal lands. Under Ernst’s bill, these non-Native abusers would no longer have to exhaust tribal court remedies before appealing their case to a federal court.

“Tribal courts prosecuting non-Indian defendants already provide the same ― if not more ― due process rights than state and federal courts,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, a partner and counsel at NIWRC. “Placing paternalistic restrictions on tribal courts in the name of ‘due process’ is nothing more than a disguise for prejudice.”

The Republican bill would also waive tribes’ sovereign immunity by creating a civil rights cause of action against the tribe for any alleged rights violation. In other words, domestic violence offenders would have the opportunity to further strike out at their victims and tribal government officials by claiming their own civil rights had been violated.

“Given that no one has been able to articulate a specific instance or example where a VAWA 2013-implementing Tribe has violated a non-Indian defendant’s rights, this provision in particular seems aimed solely at creating unprecedented liability for Tribes implementing this restored jurisdiction, thus discouraging them to do so,” Nagle said.

Thousands of Native Americans listen to speakers raising awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women at a January 2019 march in Seattle.
Thousands of Native Americans listen to speakers raising awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women at a January 2019 march in Seattle.
Karen Ducey via Getty Images

Native women desperately need strong VAWA protections. Three out of five Native women have been assaulted in their lifetimes and 34% will be raped, according to the National Congress of American Indians. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average.

And tribal courts need jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of domestic violence. Some 59% of Native women were married to non-Native men as of 2010, and 59% of assaults against Native women take place at or near a private residence.

“As the chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, one of the first tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians for domestic violence-related crimes under the 2013 VAWA tribal provisions, we are deeply disappointed by the VAWA legislation introduced by Senator Ernst,” Teri Gobin said in a statement. “The provisions in Senator Ernst’s bill would prevent tribal courts and tribal governments from protecting the most vulnerable, our women and children.”

Perhaps aware that tribes wouldn’t be happy with some of these provisions, Ernst rolled separate legislation supported by tribes into her VAWA bill as a sweetener. Savanna’s Act, a broadly supported bill that addresses the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, is part of her legislation.

That move could backfire, though, if the sponsors of Savanna’s Act don’t want their bipartisan legislation tied up in a broader fight over VAWA. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a prominent voice on Native issues and lead sponsor of Savanna’s Act, took a moment during a Wednesday hearing on her bill and the related Not Invisible Act to press for a bipartisan VAWA bill that empowers tribal governments.

“We know where the sexual predators go. They are preying on Native women in numbers that are just offensive because they know that they can commit offenses with impunity,” Murkowski said in unexpectedly passionate remarks. “We are dealing with vulnerable women here. We are dealing with those who really feel that they have no voice. The last thing in the world they want to do is get caught up in our partisan politics.”

The senator also tweeted Thursday that she hopes Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act get passed quickly, at least indirectly suggesting that she doesn’t want them caught up in a partisan fight over VAWA.

“We are deeply disappointed by the VAWA legislation introduced by Senator Ernst.”

- Teri Gobin, chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes

Ernst’s bill isn’t likely to get any Democratic support or even unanimous Republican backing. She is one of only 11 GOP co-sponsors and is missing several female senators, including Murkowski. Her bill’s other cosponsors are Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Cornyn (Texas), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), John Hoeven (N.D.) and David Perdue (Ga.).

That’s in contrast to all 47 Senate Democrats last week backing the House-passed VAWA bill and, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), introducing it in the Senate as their bill.

Ernst appears to have angered advocates for anti-domestic violence groups and tribes, both of whom told HuffPost that for months she rebuffed their efforts to see the contents of her developing bill. That may explain why Feinstein’s legislation picked up endorsements from 57 leading survivor advocacy groups, who said she worked with them on the bill’s language. Gobin of the Tulalip Tribes also endorsed the Democratic bill.

One tribal advocate on the Hill, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told HuffPost that tribal leaders had been asking since September for a meeting with staffers for Hoeven, the chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, to talk about tribal provisions in VAWA. They haven’t got one. Meanwhile, Hoeven joined Ernst on the Senate floor on Wednesday to back her bill.

An Ernst spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about tribes and domestic violence organizations feeling ignored by her office.

A Senate Indian Affairs Committee spokesperson said their people have met several times over the last year with tribal judges and organizations on public safety issues like VAWA, most recently in late September. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is the primary authorizing committee for VAWA, has also met with tribal groups, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson did not say, though, why neither Hoeven nor his staff would meet with tribal leaders who have asked for meetings on VAWA in the past two months.

For the moment, congressional lawmakers don’t appear anywhere near settling on a VAWA bill that both parties and both chambers can support. Meanwhile, the landmark 1994 law has been lapsed for nearly a year, which is an embarrassing failure by Congress. It’s not clear how much the delay in reauthorization has already affected federal funding for domestic abuse programs around the country.

This story has been updated with comments from Hoeven’s spokesperson.

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