House Republicans Derail Bill Targeting Rapists

Congressional GOPers had a last-minute chance to help cops catch more rapists. Instead, they shut the whole thing down.

| Thu Jan. 3, 2013 6:06 AM EST

In the past year, Republicans have gone wild when it comes to rape. They blocked the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act because it would have given tribal courts broader jurisdiction over rape on Native American lands. They told women they can't get pregnant from rape and that babies that result from rape are God's will. Though the GOP did pay a political price for some of this (see: Rep. Todd Akin), as the 112th Congress was hurriedly finishing up its business in the past few days, House Republicans yet again played politics with rape and sabotaged a bipartisan bill that would have made it easier to track down rapists.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act, also known as the SAFER Act of 2012, was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the Senate in May, and by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) in the House in December. It would have reallocated $117 million to help make a dent in the nationwide backlog of untested "rape kits," which contain forensic evidence collected after sexual assaults that can help identify perpetrators. There are some 400,000 untested kits sitting in labs around the country. As long as this DNA evidence goes unanalyzed, it's easier for rapists to avoid arrest and prosecution. 

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The legislation would have required at least 75 percent of federal grants already allocated for rape kit testing to actually be used for that purpose, or to increase law enforcement agencies' capacity to process the kits. (Some of that money was being spent on conferences and processing DNA for other crimes.) It would also set up a reporting system to track localities' progress in reducing their backlog, and would require yearly audits of the number of untested kits.

"Right now when we give out federal grants, we don't know if they're going to the right places, we don't know if it's going to a place where there's really [a] backlog," Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, told the Houston Chronicle in December. The SAFER Act, he said, "puts money into actually putting rapists in jail."

The bill had broad bipartisan support. Even tea party darling Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was down with it. But it stalled last month in the House judiciary committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), over the provision requiring local law enforcement to report the specifics of each backlogged case to the Department of Justice. Penny Nance, head of Concerned Women for America, responded that Smith's committee was about to let a trifling matter effectively kill the crucial bill. "They've got to get their big-boy pants on and get this done," she told the Washington Post.

The Senate did address Smith's concerns in a version of the bill that passed by unanimous consent a day before the end of the year, changing the legislation so that law enforcement agencies only had to report aggregate, not individual, case data to the DOJ. But the congressional calendar ran out before the House voted on it.

But wait! The House suspended its rules in order to take up the bill after the official legislative session had ended, and on Wednesday, it passed the SAFER Act.

Sort of. The House passed an amended bill that came out of Smith's committee; it was different than the measure that had cleared the Senate. With no time left in the legislative session to reconcile the two versions, the legislation is all but dead. Plus, the House bill included a poison pill amendment that removed language that Senators Cornyn, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had worked hard to craft, according to a congressional aide familiar with the process. Their language would have specifically authorized not just forensic labs, but law enforcement agencies, to receive grant money to help process rape kits. Another Congressional staffer told Mother Jones that amending this language was the only way Smith would allow the bill to move to the House floor for a vote. And so, with his unreconciled version, Smith essentially killed the bipartisan bill.

If the House had passed the Senate version of the bill, the law could have squeaked in under the wire and been signed by President Obama. Smith's office did not respond to a request for comment on why the bill was amended.

House bill sponsor Poe said rapists do "everything they can to harm women emotionally, to steal their souls—and knowing who did it is very important to healing," according to the Post. Thanks to this latest episode of Republican obstructionism, some rape victims will have to wait even longer.