‘Violence Against Women Act’ Reauthorization Slows In Congress

A reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has slowed in Congress. The House and Senate have passed their own versions of the bill, and if the two chambers want to reconcile the two bills, they’ll need to address issues of native sovereignty and tribal courts.

Since it first passed nearly 20 years ago, the Violence Against Women Act has enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. It pays for all sorts of programs for victims and prevention, training for local safety officers and mechanisms to track crime.

And with a name like the Violence Against Women Act, it’s politically hard to oppose. It passed twice by unanimous consent since it was first authorized in 1994.

But this year’s reauthorization came amid partisan rancor. The Democrats charged a so-called Republican “war on women.” And The GOP fired right back, saying the Democrats loaded the bill with provisions to rally their base.

“I kind of went against, I guess, the perspective that my party had taken on this,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said. “They had advanced an alternate measure that I didn’t think was acceptable.”

Murkowski voted with 14 other Republicans and every Democrat in supporting the final bill. The alternative was introduced by Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Her plan removed a provision that would allow tribal courts to prosecute some non-natives for domestic crimes committed in Indian Country.

But the bill that passed the Senate retained the tribal authority. And it passed with an amendment from Senators Murkowski and Mark Begich assuring that tribal courts would still be able to issue restraining orders against offenders that was in doubt early on.

“Bottom line for Indian Country? We absolutely must have some form of jurisdiction over perpetrators in our communities,” Jacqueline Johnson-Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said.

Johnson-Pata, who is Tlingit, says the Senate version of the bill is a step in the right direction, but the practical effect on Alaska’s tribal courts is small. Because Metlakatla is the only reservation in the state, it’s the only tribal court that will be able to prosecute non-natives for domestic violence committed on their land.

The House version does not have the tribal-prosecution language. So Alaska Attorney General Mike Geraghty says the state supports the Senate version. The state does not believe tribes own land as result of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“It’s not Native land. It doesn’t belong to the tribes. It may belong to a village corporation. It may belong to a native corporation. It may belong to a regional corporation. There are other possibilities. But that’s the point. The tribes don’t own the land,” Geraghty said.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has appointed eight members to serve on the panel that will hash out the differences between the two bills. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has not done so yet.

When that happens, Julie Kitka hopes the conference committee will heed her advice. She’s the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives and wants the final bill to allow the federal government to directly pay the regional, tribal groups that manage the village public safety officer program. Right now, the federal government gives money to the state, which oversees the VPSO program. The state would retain authority over the program; the money would just go straight to the tribes.

Kitka says the state doesn’t cover all the costs of the VPSO program, leaving tribes on the hook.

“If you’re contracting for the state or standing in for the state, your costs ought to be fully covered, just like the Indian Health Service or the BIA contracting or whatever,” Kitka said.

The Alaska Federation of Natives is urging Representative Don Young to push the provision. He said he lobbied for a spot on the conference committee, but ultimately, he was not picked.

“I don’t want anything less than the Senate has, and if we can improve on what the Senate has tried to do, I’ll attempt to do so,” Young said.

Young says he expects Congress to take up the measure when it returns in September. If history is a guide, Congress should reauthorize it. But there are major sticking points in the two bills. The Senate extends protections to gays and lesbians, and the House does not.

With an election mere months off, members of Congress will jump at the chance to make political points over just who deserves legal protection. And while that may help in the campaign, it does not help move the bill through Congress.

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