THE PLANK AUGUST 25, 2008
If you’ve been reading the liberal blogosphere over the last two days, you’ve probably detected some ambivalence about Barack Obama’s decision to make Joe Biden his running mate. Although everybody realizes that Biden is a loyal, decent Democrat who brings energy and experience to the ticket, there’s also a palpable sense of disappointment. Biden supported the Iraq War and, more recently, the anti-consumer bankruptcy bill. He’s been in Washington forever. And so on. “Biden’s not a horrific choice,” Matt Stoller wrote at openleft.com, offering the same, tempered approval as Jerome Armstrong, Markos Moulitsas, and other progressive bloggers. “He’s fine considering the choices.”
This sentiment is understandable. It’d be nice to have a running mate who showed the same foresight about the war that, say, Obama did. But these and other assessments have strangely overlooked what's arguably Biden's signature accomplishment in domestic policy: the Violence Against Women's Act. And that's no small thing.
It may be hard to remember now, but widespread awareness of domestic violence--and how to deal with it--is a relatively new phenomenon. As late as the early 1990s, many communities had no domestic violence shelters at all, while those that did couldn't fund them adequately. And neither law enforcement nor the judicial system were prepared to deal with the special nature of domestic violence. If a woman who’d been battered or raped went to the police, she was frequently lucky if she got sympathy--let alone experts trained in how to handle such cases, go after perpetrators, and counsel the victims. “At that time there were no victim rights and [somebody] had to witness an act of violence in order to prosecute it,” says Judy Ellis, now executive director of First Step, a domestic violence program based in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. “The criminal justice system lacked information and training on the dynamics of domestic violence and its effects on the family.”
VAWA changed all of that. It cracked down on interstate stalking, set standards for the collection and use of evidence in abuse cases, and set up a national domestic violence hotline. No less important, VAWA poured money into local communities for the creation of new prevention and treatment initiatives. In Detroit, according to Ellis, a VAWA grant allowed local authorities to hire prosecutors, police officers. and counselors specifically trained to deal with domestic violence. It also paid for outreach programs into non-English speaking communities, where many victims had no idea of their rights--or the resources now available to them.
Nor does the Detroit story seem to be atypical. Here’s how one New York domestic violence attorney, Liberty Aldrich, described the transformation in an article she wrote for the Nation back in 2000:
When I worked at Mississippi Legal Services before VAWA, I interviewed police to find out if they had any special programs for domestic violence victims. Not a single department did, although one sheriff volunteered that he always took into account the differences between blacks and whites in such cases--black families are used to violence, he said.
Police and prosecutors now have a tougher time getting away with attitudes like that. In New York City, for example, there have been significant developments, directly and indirectly generated by VAWA. Over the past five years, a domestic violence officer has been installed in every New York police precinct. The Brooklyn district attorney received almost $1 million in VAWA money to develop a coordinated boroughwide response to domestic violence. And the Queens district attorney just announced that a domestic violence bureau is being developed with VAWA funds to insure that all prosecutors dealing with these cases have received special training.
So what did Biden have to do with all of that? Everything. Biden had been promoting a domestic violence bill starting in the early 1990s, and although it didn’t go far at first, he kept at it, finally getting his chance in 1994, once Bill Clinton became president and began pushing for a crime bill. Even then, it was a tough sell. Critics, led by Republican Senator Robert Dole, thought the '94 crime bill was bloated with unnecessary spending and demanded cuts from it--including the $1.6 billion over six years set aside for VAWA. But Biden held firm and, eventually, got his way. “You can sponsor a bill, but if you just sponsor a bill and let it sit there, that’s nothing,” says Pat Reuss, a longtime activist who was one of the measure's chief advocates in Washington. “He shepherded it. He made sure it happened. He assigned staff to it, gave them carte blanche to do with they needed, they spent days and nights on it.”
And Biden’s stewardship didn’t end with the bill’s passage. In 1996, when President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, Biden made sure that victims of domestic violence got an extra six months to exhaust welfare benefits. When the law was up for reauthorization in 2000, he won even more funding for it. Although the courts would end up striking down one part of VAWA’s legal reforms, and although it would occasionally rankle right-wingers, the program’s bipartisan support grew over the years. In 2006, President bush signed its second reauthorization.
Advocates have claimed VAWA cut down on domestic violence by 25 percent. And while that figure seems suspiciously high--precise estimates are hard to come by--advocates seem to agree universally about VAWA’s importance and Biden’s role in it. “If I were to choose the single most important event leading to broad based awareness and change regarding domestic and sexual violence against women,” says Ellis, “it would be Senator Biden’s Violence Against Women Act of 1994.” Reuss offers a similar assessment: “In Congress, it was singularly because of him.”
Does VAWA alone make up for Biden's votes on the war and bankruptcy bills? Maybe not. But it's certainly a big point in his favor--one that deserves to get a little more attention.