Why Congress Matters: Lessons from Ray Rice and the VAWA Anniversary

The Ray Rice incident and the shameful NFL reaction that followed have elevated the issue of domestic violence for all of us. Today's 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act highlights how Congress can impact our lives--and why choosing our representatives in Congress matters so much.

For most Americans who are busy with their daily lives--going to work, taking care of kids, paying bills, and trying to find time to enjoy life along the way--there isn't a lot of time to think about Congress. It's easy to miss the ins-and-outs of what's happening in Washington, especially with a Congress that is so paralyzed by gridlock and dysfunction.

But with Ray Rice in the news and the anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) upon us, it's worth taking a minute to think about the connection between our everyday lives and what Congress can, and should, do to improve them.

VAWA protects women from domestic violence. Period. It gives prosecutors stronger tools to crack down on domestic abuse and expands victims' services for women. Since it became law two decades ago, VAWA has impacted the lives of millions of women and children around the country. It has protected women from abuse, provided support for women and children to escape violent situations, and improved the ability of law enforcement to handle this complicated issue. It has made a real difference.

Which is why it mattered that House Republicans blocked VAWA reauthorization for 500 days. It mattered that House Republicans refused to strengthen the law and voted down an additional $4 million that would have bolstered prevention and prosecution programs.

And it matters that Republican candidates like Representative Steve Southerland (FL-02) are now claiming to support VAWA in their re-election campaigns even though they voted against it in Congress.

It matters to the women who need these protections. It matters to the women who call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help, which saw an 84 percent increase in calls after the Ray Rice incident hit the news (and which is, by the way, funded partially by VAWA).

The connection between our lives and Congress goes far beyond the domestic violence issues we've seen in the news this week. Congress is making crucial decisions that affect women's lives all the time--on reproductive health, equal pay, minimum wage, child care, elder care, and a host of other issues that women care about.

The data is clear about who people believe is more on the side of women. Last week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that Americans think Democrats would do a better job looking out for women's interests by a staggering 28-point margin. Republicans' own studies show that women think they are "intolerant," "lacking in compassion," and "stuck in the past."

It's clear that women can wield tremendous power in this election, and Republicans are now scrambling to win us over.

But it's not working.

Far from fixing their problem with women, Republican candidates are determined to make it worse. Here are just a few examples:

  • Stewart Mills III (MN-08): The star of his new TV ad routinely attacks and demeans women and thinks it's amusing to call them "bitches." Yet incredibly, Mills is still standing by the ad.

  • Barbara Comstock (VA-10): She voted for mandatory, medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant women seeking abortion, and she wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. She claimed those positions don't matter, because Congress doesn't address women's healthcare issues. Really? Perhaps she should know that Congress voted at least 105 times since 1991 to restrict women's health care.
  • Congressman Steve Southerland (FL-02): In addition to claiming to support VAWA in an ad but voting against its reauthorization in Congress, Southerland also held a now notorious men's-only fundraiser, where guests were instructed to "tell the missus not to wait up" because the "whiskey and cigars are smooth." His defense: asking whether his female opponent has ever been to a lingerie party.
  • Congressman Mike Coffman (CO-06): Congressman Coffman is on the air pandering to women with votes from 20 years ago, but supported a personhood amendment that would restrict access to birth control. He also voted to defund Planned Parenthood and voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. And then there was the moment from his debate when he couldn't even remember what birth control is.
  • These positions matter. Republican candidates like these want to represent women, are claiming to support women, but are actively voting against women every chance they get.

    These positions are also motivating Democrats to vote this fall. A battleground poll conducted for EMILY's List, American Women and Planned Parenthood Action Fund found that issues related to women's health care and the economic security of their families are motivating factors to vote for more than 70 percent of women.

    More and more, women know that this midterm election matters in their lives, whether it's responding forcefully to unconscionable domestic violence or finally eliminating the inequality of paying women less than men.

    On November 4th, voters will have a chance to send that message to House Republicans: actions speak louder than words. Rhetoric is not enough. The Republican record on women's issues is not just an electoral weakness, it is a detriment to society.

    And it matters.

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