The Violence Against Women Act: Out of the fire, into the sequester

March 1, 2013

Advocates for victims of domestic violence were overjoyed to see the House pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday. Just a few days ago, they were convinced that it would be months until the expanded version of VAWA would have a chance of passing both houses of Congress, as House Republicans were standing firm against new provisions expanding protections for Native-American, immigrant, and LGBT victims.

"We're thrilled, excited, and delighted," says Roberta Valente, a consultant to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, who described herself as "stunned" to see the bill pass the House after a Monday meeting that made the outlook seem much bleaker.

A "Take Back the Night" rally in Portland, Maine. (Tim Greenway - AP)
A "Take Back the Night" rally in Portland, Maine. (Tim Greenway - AP)

News reports point to Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) as paving the way. But the celebrations over VAWA's reauthorization and expanded protections have also been cut short by the sequester's across-the-board cuts, which are reducing funding for the very programs that have been reauthorized. VAWA's funding comes through the regular appropriations process: The reauthorization that's passed Congress is just a set of instructions to appropriators about what they should do later. So while the VAWA bill authorizes another $660 million in annual funding, the funding doesn't actually come along with the bill.

The upside to this two-tracked process means that VAWA program funding has been able to continue even though the law technically expired while Congress dithered over its reauthorization, as legislators decided to extend its funding in last September's continuing resolution. The downside is that VAWA programs are now subject to the sequester, and their funding could be put on the chopping block in the upcoming CR debate.

If the full 10 months of sequestration are allowed to take effect, an estimated 200,000 domestic violence victims would lose access to services, according to an analysis conducted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the administration's Office of Management, and the Campaign for Funding to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. Here's the detailed breakdown of sequestration's impact on VAWA programs from these advocates:

—112,190 fewer victims would have access to domestic violence programs and shelters;

—Approximately 64,000 fewer victims would have assistance in obtaining protection orders, crisis intervention and counseling, sexual assault services, hospital based advocacy, transitional housing services, and help with civil legal matters;

—Newer-funded programs that specifically meet the unique needs of rape and sexual assault victims, including medical and legal assistance and other direct services, would be significantly compromised;

—Programs that provide services to children and youth exposed to violence would also face cuts that would undermine their ability to reach and protect victims.

So the fight over VAWA isn't over yet, and advocates say that funding will be the next flashpoint. And it's one that opponents of the VAWA reauthorization are prepared for as well, having already cited the lack of fiscal oversight as one of their criticisms of the bill. "What concerns us most is VAWA includes no provisions for financial oversight, views violence more through an ideological lens than a practical one, erodes constitutional rights of the accused, and perpetuates the idea that society is hostile to women," Charlotte Hays of the Independent Women's Forum, said in a statement.

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Brad Plumer · March 1, 2013