The visual tableau of a ceremonial bill-signing in Washington is rigorously choreographed. The ostensible purpose is for the president to sign a bill passed by Congress. But the dramatic purpose is for participants to celebrate their achievement and to send a message to the nation.
So it was on Thursday when President Obama joined a sizable crowd at the Interior Department auditorium to sign the new version of the Violence Against Women Act. It was an emotional celebration among administration officials, members of Congress and supporters and advocates, some of them victims of violence, who have been working for years to renew the law.
The ceremony sent a message beyond the law itself. It is one of the first significant pieces of legislation to pass the new Congress following Obama’s re-election. It renews and expands a law originally passed in 1994, written by Vice President Joe Biden when he was a senator, that establishes vital support for women who are victims of domestic violence.
Republicans had allowed the law to lapse. But in this new year, the Democrats have discovered a new momentum. They are learning that a new understanding is percolating through the country that Republican passivity need not rule the day and that the government has the power to do important things for the welfare of the people.
Our leaders may be slowly catching on. On numerous issues, polling results suggest the attitudes of the American people have moved to a new place. On gay marriage, on guns, on immigration, on health care, on economic fairness, the people are saying they are ready for change. Our leaders are just beginning to catch up.
The ceremony in Washington followed the customary format. Dignitaries stood in their assigned places on a stage behind the chair where the president would sit with a handful of pens he would use to sign the bill. At center stage behind Obama was Sen. Patrick Leahy, the author of the bill, who speeded it through the Senate Judiciary Committee and toward passage in the Senate (“my old buddy Pat Leahy,” Obama said).
One of the new provisions of the Violence Against Women Act extended protections to native American women who until now have been unprotected by the law. It is astonishing to learn that, until passage of the new law, a non-Indian who came to an Indian reservation to rape an Indian women could not be prosecuted by the tribal nation or by state authorities. It has happened that at some reservations raiding parties of white men have raped Indian women with impunity. One speaker at the ceremony was a Ute woman who described how she had no legal recourse when her former husband beat her. The new law protects Indian women, along with all other women.
That this travesty of justice was allowed to persist through the years is a legacy of the nation’s brutal historical relationship with native peoples. It took awareness and advocacy and action to address the problem of domestic violence against women of all races.
The new law gives law enforcement better tools for prosecuting cases of domestic and sexual violence, including the trafficking of women. But action might not have been forthcoming if the nation had not passed a sort of tipping point beyond which politicians became willing to embrace the imperative for action rather than allowing the inertia of historic prejudice to paralyze them.
It was a banner day for Leahy. Not only was he central to the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. The Judiciary Committee, of which he is chairman, passed out the first of several bills to address the problem of gun violence. This first bill targets gun trafficking and straw purchasers of firearms.
At the bill signing Obama commented on the importance of the gun legislation. He and other leaders are learning that things can happen when they believe the people are on their side.
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