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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Violence Against Women Act

The final vote was overwhelmingly positive, with 286 in favor and 138 opposed. I’m talking about recent House passage of the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which went to President Obama’s desk for his promised signature on the last day of February, 2013. All 138 votes in opposition were Republicans.

The original act was adopted during the Clinton administration. Although a good deal of progress has been made with misogynists who think that beating up on women will somehow make their lives better, the problem remains real. Nor is it limited to the lower class: just a couple of days ago, the local newspapers published a story on a prominent physician who, at 2:00 AM, was not sleeping but instead repeatedly pounding his wife’s head into the kitchen floor.

The act actually wouldn’t cover that, as state laws are the primary enforcement tool against violent crime. Instead, the VAWA covers crimes that involve more than one state, as when a man stalks a woman across state lines when she attempts to flee from him, or kidnaps her and carries her across jurisdiction lines. It allows the FBI to step in to solve the case, and the crime becomes a federal felony. This offers a better chance of actual punishment, as state and local governments long failed to prioritize such hate crimes.

Under the VAWA, the federal government also provides funds to train law enforcement officials, including prosecutors and judges, as well as police and sheriffs’ deputies, about the long-term consequences of ignoring this particular crime. Criminologists now know for a fact that if men feel free to abuse the women around them, they also begin to feel justified in committing other crime.

Police who dismissed women’s complaints in the past have begun to see that turning such men loose on society encourages more brutality. Prosecutors who used to consider domestic violence a private matter allowed by a marriage license, have come to understand how it negatively affects us all. Shelters in places where they were none provide women and children with security while they rebuild their lives. These things work, and domestic violence crimes dropped a huge 67% in the last few decades.

Yet, despite its measurable success, VAWA reauthorization was controversial. Nearly a year of partisan bickering went by, as Republicans waited out the 2012 presidential election and pandered to the tea partiers who want no federal laws. Even then, because many of these men failed to acknowledge that they lost the election – and that women’s votes were the chief reason why – the fight for reauthorization was a tough one.

Their excuse, as usual, was that the revised act “goes too far.” By that they meant that the proposed legislation included women they apparently believe do not deserve legal protection. These women, lesbians and Native Americans, are different from their wives and daughters, and therefore violence against them presumably is acceptable.

The feminists who worked for the new law pointed out that violence between homosexual partners occurs at about the same rate as in heterosexual relationships, and it should not be ignored more than any other such crime. On the reservations where most Native Americans live, violence against women occurs at higher rates than in the general population, and these women need help.

But the same congressmen who appear on talk shows to cry crocodile tears about the plight of Muslim women could not see the analogy to Native American culture, where women also have been discouraged from standing up for their personal liberty. Worse, these politicians used these cultural minorities to oppose legal protections for all women.

So, as they have since 1848, American feminists organized. That is much easier since the internet, and millions of electronic petition signatures soon flooded congressional computers. Tens of thousands called their representatives, and well over a hundred women testified in Washington on their personal horrific experiences. After that, moderate Republicans no longer could argue that the act wasn’t needed, and Speaker John Boehner finally allowed a vote.

No Democrat voted against it, but, as I said above, 138 Republicans did. The only possible comment I have is: “What were they thinking?” Will this help them win women’s votes in 2014? Or are they in fact so misogynist that they still believe this crime is acceptable? Does the party of family values not see how traumatic family violence is to children? Do they not understand that boys who see the mistreatment of their mothers or sisters or other women will follow the same pattern later on? Or that victimized girls likely will limit their horizons and live the rest of their lives under a cloud of fear?

* * *

But I also want to address a larger point: when did we decide that laws had to be reauthorized? As my husband astutely commented, “does anyone think that violence that is illegal today might be legal tomorrow?”

As we talked, we began to reason out that all of this probably traces back to the “sunset” ideas that were big in the 1980s. Even liberals promoted them, especially here in Florida, where “sunset” sounded good along with our “sunshine” laws of the previous decade.

“Sunset” meant that laws would be passed for a set period, say a decade, and then would go off the books unless reauthorized. “Zero-based” budgeting also was a cool new bit of jargon: every government agency would presume to start from scratch every budget year, reviewing each line item to justify its existence. It sounds good, but I after a couple of decades of experience, I believe that sunset was a bad idea.

Agencies spend half the year justifying themselves and preparing complicated budgets for the next year. Instead of focusing on their mission – providing clean water, disposing of garbage, finding foster homes for kids – they feel pressured by other agencies who might grab their share of the budget if they don’t come up with brilliant PR. To avoid sunset, they bring in consultants to study the managerial structure, detail job descriptions, and create comprehensive plans. Instead of allowing workers to simply do their jobs, executives all too often focus on the focus group.

I increasingly think that it’s only lobbyists who benefit from the notions of “sunset” and “reauthorization.” I was on HCC’s Board of Trustees in the late 1990s, for instance, when the federal Higher Education Act came up for reauthorization. A couple of us went to Washington -- and lest you think this was a pleasant junket, I tramped around in January snow and got up in the dark to go to meetings that lasted well into the night.

We heard from experts (and some journalists) about the act’s provisions and the importance of reauthorization. I then met with Senator Bob Graham and Congressman Jim Davis, something I could have done at home. Probably most trustees could have, and as I think back, the people who benefited from this most were the consultants who led the meetings and the prominent speakers who got good fees.

Even more than wasteful spending, though, I fear that sunset and reauthorization of laws create a destructive sense of impermanence. The Constitution intended no such routine. Laws were to be passed, and when conditions changed, amended or repealed. Putting a deadline on an act encourages disrespect for law; an end-date encourages an act’s opponents to think that they can wait it out. Republicans used to be the party of stability, and they should not enable temporary law.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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