Andy Harris, the only Maryland Republican serving in Congress, voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act last week, but he didn't call and tell me that.
Word of Harris' vote came from the Democratic Party — specifically, a news release from state chair Yvette Lewis, who blasted the 1st District congressman for his nay on the VAWA: "Today, by voting against the Violence Against Women Act, Congressman Andy Harris decided to continue his trend of voting against bipartisan legislation that would help people in the First District and Maryland.
"Eighty-seven House Republicans voted for this legislation, which is a reauthorization of vital support for organizations that serve victims of domestic violence. But Andy Harris remains committed to his far-right, out-of-touch positions and refuses to put the needs of his constituents first."
I thought it would be interesting to have the second-term congressman explain his vote.
Harris is conservative, but how could he vote against a whole system of programs credited with significantly reducing violence against women since it was first adopted in the 1990s? Estimates of that reduction range credibly from 50 percent to 67 percent, according to PolitiFact, the fact-checking website. You'd have to be a real hardhead to vote against something like that.
So I was all set to make the phone call to Harris' Washington office when I discovered something disturbing: I was about to play right into the Democrats' hands.
According to an essay by Andrew Stiles in The National Review, getting the press to tattletale on a Republican who votes against wholesome-sounding legislation comes right out of the Democrats' playbook.
In fact, Stiles suggests, Democrats designed the VAWA reauthorization so that Republicans who vote against it look like a bunch of hairy knuckle-draggers.
Stiles calls it "the scorched-earth phase of the Democrats' 'war on women' campaign," part of a strategy to hold their Senate majority and maybe retake the House in 2014.
According to Stiles, here's what those cagey Democrats do:
"1) Introduce legislation; 2) title it something that appeals to the vast majority of Americans who have no interest in learning what is actually in the bill, e.g., the 'Violence Against Women Act'; 3) make sure it is sufficiently noxious to the GOP that few Republicans will support it; 4) vote, and await headlines such as '[GOP Lawmaker] Votes No On Violence Against Women Act'; 5) clip and use headline in 30-second campaign ad; and 6) repeat. ... The strategy is abetted by a compliant press."
I guess that's me.
I guess I'm being unwittingly compliant by asking a congressman to explain why he voted against the renewal of a law supported by hundreds of human rights groups and 78 members of the Senate (including all its female members, all its Democrats and more than half of its Republicans).
Look, I hate to be used. It feels icky.
But I don't buy Stiles' claim that press reporting of votes is an act of partisan compliance.
Nor do I think well-intended bills — such as the VAWA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the Paycheck Fairness Act — are designed solely for the cynical purpose of making nay-saying Republicans look bad while garnering more female support for Democrats.
Any member of Congress can dismiss such legislation as meaningless, feel-good acts all he likes, but if he votes nay on popular initiatives that get bipartisan support, he chances the consequences.
So I asked Harris' press spokesman, Matt Sauvage, for some insight on his boss' vote; he provided some background, then the following statement from the congressman:
"As a father of three daughters, I was proud to support and vote for my colleague Cathy McMorris Rodgers's version of the Violence Against Women Act. It provided even stronger protection than the Senate bill for women who are victims of domestic violence. Both bills, however, lacked a conscience protection provision for those who are trying to stop human trafficking. The Violence Against Women Act was something I voted for in the last Congress and something that should have been reauthorized in this Congress without trying to play politics with such an important issue."
Let me translate: Harris voted for a House version of the VAWA that excluded protections for gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse. It failed, 257 to 166, before a more inclusive Senate version passed, 286 to 138.
Harris' reference to "conscience protection" refers to a missing provision for religious organizations that want to help prostitutes but don't want to advise them about abortion. (Does this really have to be spelled out in every bill that comes through Congress?)
Andy Harris might have voted for earlier versions of the VAWA, but he voted against the one that counts and becomes law, and that might not sit well with the many thousands of female voters who live in his district. He has to live with that. And I have to live with being used. It's an icky job, but someone has to do it.