If you read enough left-wing blogs or watch enough Comedy Central, you might conclude that Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch condone rape.
The accusation is out of line. The so-called "Franken amendment" is far more complex than the critics would have you think. In our information age, innuendo and invective move at warp speed; nuance travels more slowly.
The story began on Oct. 6, when the Senate passed a defense appropriations amendment authored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. The amendment would ban the Pentagon from doing business with any contractor or subcontractor that requires employees to agree to arbitration to settle claims "related to or arising out of sexual assault or harassment, including assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, or negligent hiring, supervision, or retention."
The amendment passed on on a bipartisan 68-30 vote. Crapo and Risch voted no.
Franken's amendment has gotten considerable attention since then, because of the shocking story of Jamie Leigh Jones. In 2005, the 20-year-old Jones worked for KBR, a Pentagon contractor in Iraq. Four days into her job, she says she was gang-raped — a brutal attack that left her disfigured. Jones has spent the past four years seeking a chance to take her case to court, and she has become an advocate for arbitration reform.
As a result , the Franken amendment has become something of a referendum on sexual abuse. The Huffington Post blog called out the 30 senators — all Republican, and all male — who voted against Franken's amendment. Labeling the amendment's opponents the "rape-nuts," Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" gave the story an even wider audience:
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Not surprisingly, the vote has since taken on a life of its own. On Thursday, for instance, I received another e-mail on the issue. The subject line minced no words: "Crapo/Risch vote for rape."
This has left both senators scrambling to condemn the attack on Jones and defend their records on women's issues. Crapo, for instance, points to his work to secure federal dollars for Family Advocacy Center And Education Services, a Boise facility that consolidates legal, social and health services for abuse victims. Risch says he began fighting on behalf of abuse victims at the start of his political career, when he served as Ada County prosecutor; "I saw to it that those despicable people who committed such crimes were sent off to prison for a long time."
What's more, they make some fair points about the amendment itself.
• The senators say they aren't alone in their opposition: The Obama administration's Defense Department doesn't like the amendment either. Irony alert No. 1: Crapo and Risch are, in this instance, seeking cover by siding with the White House.
• They say it would dismantle the arbitration process — a potential boon for trial lawyers who take civil cases, but not necessarily to the advantage of victims who can receive a more rapid financial settlement through arbitration. Irony alert No. 2: Crapo and Risch, lawyers by training, are bashing the trial attorneys.
• Crapo and Risch also point out that arbitration does not preclude a rape victim from filing a civil suit or seeking criminal charges. In Jones' case, a federal circuit court of appeals has upheld her right to go to court. No irony here, just a crucial point to consider.
Has Jones waited hellishly far too long for a validation of her legal rights? Absolutely. But no amendment can do anything to fix that. And her byzantine legal battle establishes black-letter precedent that addresses any future rape and sexual abuse cases.
The senators make a reasoned argument that the Franken amendment does little good, and might even have unintended consequences. They should let it go at that, and not parrot the GOP company line about Halliburton. Since KBR is a Halliburton subsidiary, Republicans have called the Franken amendment a political hit against the contracting giant.
"I thought that it had ended, but here we have another case," Crapo said in a Wednesday interview. Crapo claimed he was unaware of the Halliburton connection when he voted no.
Crapo also says he was unaware of Halliburton's contributions to his 2010 re-election war chest — $1,000 on May 5 and another $1,500 on Sept. 18. Those contributions, he said, had nothing to do with his vote.
Risch — the recipient of a $2,000 Halliburton contribution in July 2008 — also pleads ignorance. "Until you just reminded me about it," he said in an interview Thursday, "I'd forgotten about it."
I'm not buying the over-the-top insinuation that Idaho's senators are pro-rape. That kind of rhetoric really coarsens and cheapens the debate.
Pro-Halliburton? Now, that is open to debate ...