Blocking the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was not the only way the 112th Congress failed American women in 2012. In addition to VAWA, the SAFER Act was also derailed before Christmas. Legislation with bipartisan support, the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act, or SAFER Act, aimed to create measures for crime labs to process backlogged rape kits. According to the Washington Post, there are over 400,000 rape kits nationwide that are waiting to be processed for forensic evidence — evidence that could potentially identify perpetrators and prevent future sexual assault. The measure did not add to the debt, but simply reallocated the funds to assist in putting rapists behind bars.
An undisputed bill, with approval from Republicans and Democrats which required no additional spending, shut down by Congress. What went wrong?
The SAFER Act was first presented by Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) in the Senate in May, and then in the House of Representatives by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). While there are already grants in place to pay for rape kit testing, some of the funds are used for processing evidence for other non sexual-assault crimes. The SAFER Act proposed reallocating $117 million, or at least 75% of federal grants specifically for rape kit testing, to be applied only for that purpose or to increase the capacity to process DNA in sexual assault cases. In addition, it proposed a system to ensure the decrease of backlogged rape kits by tracking numbers and performing annual audits.
Although the SAFER act carried broad bi-partisan support, even from a Tea-Party member, the bill ceased to move in the House judiciary committee, lead by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), because of complaints that the local law enforcement must report each backlogged case and its specifics to the Department of Justice. Also, the Washington Postreports committee members were concerned that the online registry could create a negative image of law enforcement because it would not report why the rape kit was left untested.
The Senate did change the provisions with which Smith was concerned, but the year ended before the House was able to vote on the measure before the New Year. But with the House suspending its rules to again vote on the bill in the new session, the SAFER Act was eventually passed earlier this month.
However, the version approved by the House was Smith’s doing, not the bill that was originally passed in the Senate. There is no time left in the session for the House and the Senate to agree on the SAFER Act. In addition, according to Mother Jones, the House removed the ability for law enforcement agencies to have access to this grant money in addition to forensic labs. If Smith had not derailed the bill and the House had passed the original version, President Obama could have approved the measures without worrying about the end of the congressional year.
If our elected leaders cannot pass a bill that is so widely supported, so noncontroversial, and so easy to finance, then Washington will become more hostile, leading to (even more) gridlocks, headaches, and stand-stills. And for us outside of Capitol Hill, it will lead to more victims, heartache, and trauma.
While the measure failed because a small group of representatives, the dismissal of the SAFER Act only further labels Republicans as rapist-supporting misogynists. Between the continuation of insensitive and uneducated comments, VAWA, and the SAFER Act, Republicans still have a long way to go to win women over. And as a whole, Congress has light-years ahead of them before they regain the respect of Americans.