December 20, 2012
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

If you were watching “Melissa Harris Perry” last Sunday, you saw my head explode over the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Not over the bill itself but over the opposition of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to the tribal provision. This provision would give tribes limited authority to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes against Native American women on Indian reservations. But because of Cantor’s intransigence on this issue, VAWA reauthorization is almost dead in the 112th Congress.

I was so incredulous that I said the House Republicans were trying to protect white men from prosecution. “It’s not ‘as if.’ That is what they are doing,” interjected Chloe Angyal, an editor of Feministing.com. I made an erroneous accusation there. I don’t know if all perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault against Native American women are white. But they are men, nonetheless, which is why during a commercial break, Angyal  went even further by calling Cantor “the patron saint of rapists.”

I think we need to ask why Eric Cantor is going to such efforts, to such extensive efforts to protect men who go onto reservations to rape women. We need to talk about it and frame it as violence against women, but we also need to flip it around and talk about it, this is about protecting rapists. That’s exactly what Eric Cantor and the House Republicans are doing when they are holding this up.

Basically, right now, if you are a non-Native American man who beats up, sexually assaults or even kills a Native American woman on tribal land, you’ll get away with it. That’s because tribal courts do not have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indian defendants. In addition, federal and state law enforcement have limited resources and might be hours away from a reservation. And then there’s this: According to a General Accounting Office report on “Department of Justice Declinations of Indian Country Criminal Matters,”  federal prosecutors declined to take action on 52 percent of violent crimes committed on tribal lands. Of those declined cases, 67 percent  were sexual abuse and related cases.

Add the statistics above to those in the chilling congressional findings in the “Tribal Law & Order Act of 2010” and you’ll see why the tribal provision is needed in VAWA.

34 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes

39 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be subject to domestic violence

When I specifically asked Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, Doug Heye, on Tuesday where things stand on coming to an agreement or compromise on the tribal provision, he said, “It’s hard to say exactly where things are. While we have sought to negotiate in good faith, Senate Democrats continue to move goal posts. We are committed to passing VAWA and hope to do so as soon as possible. Senate Democrats continually moving the goal posts make this difficult.” What goal posts, I asked. “On tribal lands and other provisions, we have throughout this process sought to find common ground, only to be told that a new problem exists somewhere else.”

According to a letter to Cantor from Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, about the latest VAWA draft, the “new problems” are significant. “Tribal leaders viewed the draft as a construct that would bolster the ability of abusers to game the criminal justice system, the very problem we are now trying to solve,” Keel wrote in the letter delivered to Cantor today. “The system outlined in the proposed draft would make a dangerous system even worse.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) co-authored the VAWA reauthorization, which includes a tribal provision that gave limited jurisdiction to tribal authorities to prosecute non-Indian defendants. The bill passed the Senate with 68 votes in April. Despite ongoing talks that intensified this week and included Vice President Biden, the bill is on life support.

“The only way to reauthorize VAWA this year is for the House to take up and pass the Senate-passed bill,” Leahy said in a statement. “If the House Republican leadership refuses to do that in the final days of this Congress, it is a shame.” And an outrage.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.