Whatever Happened to the Violence Against Women Act?

VAWA died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. America got a telegram from the House: Eric Cantor let the Violence Against Women Act die with many points between it and the Senate bill unreconciled. Maybe it was last week.

Last year, the Senate voted to reauthorize the bill—which first passed in 1994 and was renewed with minimal fuss in 2000 and 2005—while expanding provisions for lesbians, gay men, immigrant women and women on Native American lands. The House responded with a bill that ignored those new provisions and gutted existing ones, then sat and waited out the clock. In a culture that heightens almost anything sex-related to a fever pitch, you probably heard all this in passing, if at all.

You might expect Cantor and other conservative leaders in the House to leap all over renewing the VAWA as kind of a gimme. There's less political liability to reauthorizing an 18-year-old bill than in getting bogged down in congressional debates about the provisions of a new one. Rubber-stamping offers far fewer opportunities than new debate for alienating women via foot-in-mouth disease.

That's critical for the GOP these days, because they have a women problem—the political equivalent of not being able to hear the words "women problem" without thinking of some broad getting cranky, rubbing the small of her back and walking down the beach in soft focus. Their most outspoken voice on women's issues this last year was arguably a reactionary cretin who believes in the Magical Uterus theory. Then, in November, the gender gap in presidential voting was the largest in history.

Now, if you wanted, you could make the case that the House let the bill lapse in order to address structural flaws in it. For instance, maybe declines in some forms of domestic violence since the bill's 1994 passage are attributable to a trend of overall crime reduction preceding its inception. Maybe funding needs to be directed away from law enforcement programs to counseling and family assistance. Of course, assuming this was the House GOP's intent requires that you ignore everything you have ever learned about the House GOP. Still, you could make a case for it. You could make a case that Angela Lansbury was the Zodiac or that Domino's pizza is full of "electbrolytes," which is why it's so killer. You could do a lot of stupid things.

Fantasies aside, it's far likelier that Cantor and the House Republicans let the VAWA lapse for three reasons:

One, they know that killing the bill forces the Democrats to re-introduce it and begin discussion of its provisions anew. While that increases the risk of some paleoconservative standing on the House floor and wondering why women domestic violence victims don't squeeze their breasts and lactate Spiderman webbing at their attackers, it also means that they get to negotiate. More specifically, they get to negotiate with Democrats and Barack Obama, who, recent bluster aside, has approached conflict like Stalin in reverse: "Not one step forward."

Two, opposing something called the Violence Against Women Act is just a good culture war tactic. The GOP is on Year #20 of Rush Limbaugh's "feminazis" slur, and it even evolved last year into Rush's claim that feminism and "chickification" is making your—yes YOUR—penis smaller. This is the same zero-sum attitude that turns every Black History Month into a lamentation that there is no White History Month. There is a fixed amount of justice in this world, and if we give it to women, we'll have to take it from men. Unviolated vaginas will shrink your dick. What do you tell a woman without two black eyes? Nothing, because you can't see her because someone had to give both black eyes to you instead.

What makes this absurd is that the VAWA is gender neutral. The name is a bit of salesmanship ginned up by Joe Biden in 1994. The bill targets domestic violence of many stripes; it just so happens that women constitute about 85% of the victims of those crimes, so the name worked better. VAWA includes programs that educate police about the signs of domestic violence and how to interpret crime scenes and witness testimony; it targets elder abuse; it funds shelters and outreach groups and even helps support victims with housing costs when their attackers provide the bulk of household income. These are all things that benefit men as well as women: even young, strong men—it has to be repeated, endlessly—can also be victims of domestic abuse. The VAWA helped people of both sexes and multiple backgrounds. Which brings up the next problem.

Three, the VAWA helped people of both sexes and multiple backgrounds. While it had other culture-war aspects to it that could have incentivized letting it lapse—extending more protections to gay men, immigrants and migrant workers—the fundamental problem with it is that it intervened in people's lives in ways that could be of tangible benefit to them. Bureaucracy stepping in to improve people's lives or protect them is an existential threat to a very particular vision of America's future. Picture Ronald Reagan saying, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," only he's not being sarcastic, and he's also a Democrat.

Why the VAWA's lapse has not dominated headlines is probably the fault of the "fiscal cliff" in more ways than one, but the easiest is that it's just not sexy. TV pundits didn't dream up domestic violence and come up with their own nickname for it. The stakes are immediate and personal and neatly point up the aloof vacuity of someone like David Gregory.

Fiscal cliffs are much more fun. They're things that can be distorted and exaggerated into a multitude of apocalypses. They're things people don't understand and or have concrete experiences with—profound, terrifying, violent experiences that make millionaires sitting in a studio on a Sunday TV circlejerk unseemly. You can sit on a Sunday talk show and call for rapid, regressive austerity and never worry that the person next to you will feel the slightest budget pinch. Statistically, though, if you show up on enough of them, you'll meet a woman or a man subject to domestic abuse. And that makes blithely handwaving away suffering so much more difficult. Suddenly you have to put your whole arm into it.