This, fellow citizens, is Congressional Rush Week. Any bill that isn't passed by Congress by Oct. 2 will simply be left at the curb in the rush to adjournment, home and election.
At the moment, one of the bills in danger of being so stranded is something called the Act to Prevent Domestic Violence. This is a bill that passed the House, squeaked through the Senate, passed through conference committee unscathed and, now, in a gathering controversy, may die of neglect.
When this bill first came up for hearings, at least one congressman thought that domestic violence had something to do with terrorism at airports. But a bill aimed at terrorism in the home has turned out to be more controversial.
HR2977 would provide a federal support program to states and communities that are interested in starting programs to deal with family violence. The first priority would be for shelters, so that someone who is bleeding or terrified in the middle of the night would have a place to go.
This seems like the most apple-pie-and-mother-hood sort of idea -- until you remember how long we have lived under the rule of thumb. In English common law, after all, it was perfectly okay for a husband to "chastise" his wife as long as he used a stick no thicker than his thumb.
This charming right of husbands was finally, nulified in America in North Carolina n 1874, but only with reservations. The court cautioned, "If no permanent injury has been inflicted nor malice, cruelty or dangerous violence show by the husband, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze and leave the parties to for give and forget."
This was the way we treated domestic violence for nearly a century. The public chose to forgive and forget, although the families is that violence escalates.
In 1975, over 1.7 million American faced a husband or wife wielding a knife or gun. Over 2 million had been beaten by a spouse. Half of the murders in the country are by one spouse. Women are overwhelmingly the victims of violence.
Given these statistics, the opponenst of this bill couldn't beat their breats publicly in favor of wife-beating. What they have said instead is, "This is a terrible problem, but . . . " Then, chucking all the way, they have listed the evils of federal funding, federal coutrol, federal interference with the family.
But it's hard to describe this legislation as a federal grab for power. It is carefully framed so that the programs are state and community designed and run. The states must put up matching funds, and no single project gets more than $50,000. Furthermore, the $15 million appropriation is not considered major money in the land of MX missiles.
The real opposition is coming from allegedly "pro-family" right-wing groups. In some bizarre testimony, Sen. Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire warned that homes for battered women would be anti-family "indoctrination centers." Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina suggested that they would encourage the "disintegration of the family."
Apparently an intact family with a broken wife is better than a broken family with an intact exwife. You don't have to reach deep into these psyches to see a threatened "head of husehold."
According to these fantasies, the woman who heads for a shelter is the one responsible for breaking up the family, not the husband who beat her up. The shelters are dangerous precisely because they might suggest that her husband has no right to "enforce his authority" with a left hook to the jaw.
June Zeitlin, the head of the Office on Domestic Violence, says that she knew the right wing "would hit us. The 'pro-family' coalition is strong and they are focusing on this."
They came close to victory in the Senate on Sept. 4, when the bill passed by only five votes. Among the people conspicuously absent were Sens. George McGovern (D-S.D.), John Culver (D-Iowa) and Frank Church (D-Idaho), all liberals up for reelection in contests with right-wing opponents.
Last week, The Moral Majority -- which apparently finds wife-beating morally acceptable -- was conspicuously present at the conference committee. The odds are only 50-50 that the bill will ever come up for a last-minute roll call.
Zeitlin says, "Any family where the husband is beating his wife is in serious trouble. Our immediate focus is to help the women and children. Our long-term solution is to help the abusers. But whether she stays or not, we think she should lead a life free of violence."
That really isn't a whole lot to ask.