Sen. Mikulski objects to changing VAWA process

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Buried inside President Bush’s 2008 budget resolution released last week is a provision that would shift control over how anti-violence programs are funded from the legislative to the executive branch.

The provision has key lawmakers, as well as advocates in the domestic violence community, up in arms because it would give the Department of Justice, rather than Congress, discretion over how to spend federal dollars earmarked to combat domestic violence and sexual assault.

"It’s a nightmare," said Jill Morris, public policy director at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an advocacy organization based in Denver.

If the proposal becomes law, critics fear the administration could disregard specific programs approved in the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which allows the government to spend as much as $3.4 billion over five years on domestic violence and sexual assault programs administered by the Office on Violence Against Women. Actual funding levels are determined each year by a vote on appropriation by Congress and have fallen far short of the authorized amounts.

Under Bush’s budget proposal, government spending on domestic violence and sexual assault programs is lumped under a block grant to be managed by the Office on Violence Against Women, an agency within the Department of Justice. Currently, funding is divided among a number of separate programs approved last year by Congress during the authorization process.

Jill Morris

The Office on Violence Against Women currently administers most federal VAWA funds but does not currently control how it is spent.

What’s wrong with Bush’s idea of making the agency the arbiter as well as the administrator of funds?

Critics fear the administration would eliminate or deemphasize certain anti-violence programs and add funding for new, untested programs. That, in turn, could deny victims access to what advocates say is a "well-rounded" menu of programs that was carefully considered by Congress and signed into law by the president.

New Programs Vulnerable

New programs would be especially vulnerable because they haven’t had time to mature, advocates fear. These include programs to treat sexual assault victims and efforts to reach out to communities of color, Native American women and rural victims of abuse.

"Congress clearly intended for the Department of Justice to allocate specific monies for specific grant programs for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault," Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski said in a statement. "The president’s proposal flies in the face of the recent VAWA reauthorization that clarified this process."

Erik Ablin, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, praised the proposed change, which came as a provision in the administration’s $2.9 trillion budget resolution sent to Capitol Hill on Feb. 5. The resolution is non-binding and serves as a blueprint for government spending.

Consolidating power within the Office on Violence Against Women will make it easier for officials to respond to programs that are inefficient or unproductive, he said. That, he added, would make the grant process more flexible and competitive.

‘Managing Taxpayers’ Money’

"The budget proposal is consistent with the administration’s commitment to managing taxpayers’ money wisely," he said. "The new structure can actually serve to give the Office on Violence Against Women the additional discretion it needs to be more responsive to the needs of law enforcement, victim advocates, service providers and court officials because it will have more flexibility to adjust spending priorities at a later date and better target funds to the areas of greatest need."

Ablin also noted that the Office on Violence Against Women will continue to seek advice from domestic violence experts and advocates outside the administration and said the administration does not seek to eliminate effective programs.

"If a grantee has had a successful track record with proven results in an area of need, there is no reason to believe that that grantee will not be competitive in applying for grant moneys in fiscal year 2008," he said.

But advocates insist the power over funding should remain under the control of Congress, where it is more collaborative, to defend against the possibility of arbitrary or politically motivated cutbacks.

Funding Freeze

Many advocates doubt that Bush can actually win this turf battle with a newly empowered Democratic Congress, especially over programs that enjoy widespread, bipartisan support. "I think this will have a very cool reception" on Capitol Hill, a Democratic Senate aide said on the condition of anonymity.

Looking beyond the issue of how funds get allocated, advocates say a deeper worry is about a funding freeze.

Even if Congress retains full budget authority, it doesn’t mean domestic violence and sexual assault programs will get the full $3.4 billion over five years–an average of $680 million per year–that has been authorized for programs administered by the Office on Violence Against Women.

Allison Randall

That’s because each year Congress decides whether to appropriate–or actually spend the funds that have been budgeted by the authorization process–and legislators have consistently appropriated far less.

In fiscal 2007, domestic violence and sexual assault programs administered by the Office on Violence Against Women are estimated to receive only $367.4 million, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.

And in 2008, those programs would be essentially frozen at the same actual spending level of $370 million, under the president’s budget.

"In an era of competing demands for resources and efforts to control the growth of spending, the fiscal year 2008 request for $370 million for Violence Against Women grants is not an insignificant amount," Ablin said.

Funding for domestic violence programs, in fact, has not increased since fiscal 2002, when domestic violence programs were bumped up to $390 million. Since then, funding has gradually dropped, and in 2006 it stood at $387 million, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. These figures include funding for programs that fall under the Department of Justice but not those that fall under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Democratic appropriators may be as reluctant as their GOP predecessors to appropriate the full authorized amount this coming fiscal year, advocates say. That’s because Democrats, with an eye on heavy spending on the war in Iraq and widening federal deficits, talk about tightening the federal purse.

Allison Randall, public policy director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said the president’s request for $370 million is not enough.

"It’s a real-time cut in dollars," Randall said, adding: "Every year more and more victims of domestic violence are requesting shelter and being turned away. They’re calling to try and find an attorney and they can’t find one. Thousands of calls to the hotline get dropped because they can’t answer all of the calls."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.

For more information:

Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, Domestic Violence Resources: