WASHINGTON — Picking one's battles has never been trickier, especially if you're a member of the benighted Republican Party.
So the question is this: Do you support rape? And, of course, no one (except a rapist) does, right? Yet, 30 Republican members of the U.S. Senate have been getting phone calls lately from people asking, "Why do you support rape?" These callers most likely are familiar with the mock Web site "RepublicansForRape.org," which recounts the recent skirmish over Sen. Al Franken's so-called "anti-rape" amendment to the defense appropriations bill.
For something so un-funny, the subject has become an exercise in the absurd.
The amendment, which passed Oct. 6 by a 68-30 vote, was intended to prevent the Pentagon from contracting with companies that require employees to resolve disputes through arbitration rather than through the courts.
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The impetus behind the amendment was the 2005 horror story of Jamie Leigh Jones, then a 20-year-old employee of Halliburton/KBR in Iraq, who alleged that she was drugged, gang-raped and held captive for 24 hours in a shipping container without food or water. When Jones sought legal recourse, the defense contractor argued that, under their employment contract, she had to pursue her complaint through arbitration rather than the courts.
No one hearing details of the alleged assault wants to be on the side of those who attacked her — or the company that refused to help her. If you're a remotely savvy politician, that's not a battle you want to join. One might assume, therefore, that there must be some reasonable explanation for 30 Republican senators taking a position that would invite vilification.
Politically, this couldn't be worse timing for Republicans, who can't seem to shake their white-male-patriarchal-oppressor image.
Picture it: 30 Republicans, all men, all white, pitted against a young woman who says she was raped by a gang of Halliburton thugs. Voila: Corporate evil incarnate versus feminine innocence. Is there a better metaphor for the popular perception of how the parties differ? For conspiracy-minded people, the only things missing from this Halloween tableau are the Dick Cheney masks and the "W" branding irons.
A cynic might wonder whether the Franken amendment was engineered for such purposes. Republicans, alas, haven't been brilliant in explaining their position. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in a statement cringingly ridiculed by "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart, said the Senate shouldn't be in the business of regulating contracts and that the amendment was a political attack on Halliburton.
In fact, the reason some Republicans objected is that the amendment was overbroad and might not be enforceable. The latter possibility was raised by the Department of Defense in a letter to senators, saying that the DOD or its contractors "may not be in a position to know about such things. Enforcement would be problematic."
It would be easy to infer a conspiracy of denial, if not for the fact that the White House agrees. And, if not for what followed in the Defense Department letter: "It may be more effective to seek a statutory prohibition of all such arrangements in any business transaction entered into within the jurisdiction of the United States, if these arrangements are deemed to pose an unacceptable method of recourse." Apparently, the "why-do-you-support-rape" crowd overlooked that detail. It's far more entertaining to insist that Republicans, instead of objecting to a potentially bad law, don't mind if women get gang-raped. Legal wrangling is not for sissies in Twitter World.
The real goal, obviously, should be to ensure that no one is denied access to justice and that arbitration agreements are nonbinding in criminal acts. In fact, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month in Jones' favor, agreeing that the alleged gang rape wasn't related to her employment and that she, therefore, wasn't bound by the company's arbitration agreement.
Jones' painful ordeal is far from over, and her Byzantine route to justice has been indefensibly arduous, but at least now she can have her day in court. Though it appears that there are plenty of bad guys in this story — may they get their due — the 30 Republican senators have been unfairly smeared for doing the harder thing, for the right reasons.
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