House Decorum Is Fraying

Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:39pm

Correction Appended

House Democratic leaders may have succeeded in passing health care reform but somewhere along the way they lost control of the chamber, where the traditional rules of decorum appear to be crumbling.

Between dozens of Republican Members cheering on a heckler in the gallery as he was being arrested, photos of Democratic Members defeated in 1994 being placed on Democrats’ seats prior to the health care vote, and conservative lawmakers egging on tea party protesters outside the Capitol who hurled racial and homophobic slurs at Democratic lawmakers, the House of Representatives has sounded more like the British House of Commons.

The tipping point was Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) yelling “baby killer” during Sunday night’s debate, a move that Democratic leaders say shows GOP leaders need to regain control of their Members.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Monday that Neugebauer needs to go to the well of the House to apologize for his outburst and called on Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) “to rein in his caucus members.”

“These guys are writing their own rules. … You cannot run this place that way,” Clyburn said. “Boehner is the leader of the Republicans the last time I checked. He needs to take control of his Conference.”

Clyburn also blasted Republicans for violating House rules by cheering on a heckler in the gallery as he was being dragged out. Such actions, he said, only add to an environment getting way out of hand.

“That kind of stuff, it festers. I’ve been at this stuff a long time, and I know that for these things to be isolated events, they must be isolated. … We need to make a statement about this now,” the South Carolina Democrat said.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel responded to Clyburn’s comments by saying his boss was “satisfied with the tone of the debate, which focused on the serious factual arguments against the Democrats’ job-killing government takeover bill.”

Republicans have not been the only ones playing fast and loose with floor rules: On Feb. 24, Republicans objected when Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) called their party “a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.” Faced with the demand that his words be removed form the Congressional Record, Weiner withdrew his remarks. But he then poked the GOP again with similar remarks, which also were withdrawn following another GOP objection. And Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) last week had his words taken down when he accused Republicans of “fear mongering.”

Technically, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is charged with ensuring that rules of decorum are followed in the House. Her office could not be reached for comment. But at least one liberal Democrat questioned, “When did the Speaker become in charge of the political behavior of Members?”

Neugebauer issued a statement Monday acknowledging that he shouted the phrase, claiming that he said, “It’s a baby killer,” referring to the bill and not to Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who was speaking at the time. Only “baby killer” was audible in the chamber.

Stupak said Monday on MSNBC that he “certainly took it as a personal attack on me” when Neugebauer had his outburst. “He said it wasn’t. If it was not directed at me, then I think he owes all the Members of the House of Representatives an apology for violating the rules of proper conduct,” Stupak said.

Referring to racial and homophobic slurs that were said to Members of Congress by protesters, the Michigan Democrat lamented that people seem to have “lost a sense of civility. Not just in the Congress but in this country. … It’s becoming acceptable. I reject that.”

Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) told reporters on Sunday that Republicans who cheered the interruption had reacted inappropriately to the protester.

“Citizens in the gallery are the guests of the House,” Pence said. “Outbursts of that nature are not appropriate. House Republicans are going to stand for the rules of decorum on the floor.”

A House GOP aide said the tense environment created by long hours on the floor contributed to the charged atmosphere.

Democratic leaders “kept Members here through the weekend into the dead of night, even though we were scheduled to be in session this week, to force a vote through. They wore people down and nerves were obviously frayed,” the aide said.

But Democrats said Republican leaders need to do more to ensure that rules are followed. Some made a direct correlation between GOP Members applauding the actions of hecklers in the gallery and endorsing egregious comments made by protesters outside.

“I am very disappointed that elements of the Republican Party appear to think they benefit from this kind of mob behavior,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said.

Frank, who says he was the target of a homophobic slur by tea party protesters, said it is “appalling” that some Republicans are condoning the tactics used by protesters. He said Republicans acted like “clowns” when they cheered the gallery heckler.

The Massachusetts Democrat called on Boehner to “stop adding to that kind of outrageous bullying” and dismissed Boehner’s statements that there were only isolated instances of tea party protesters using slurs against lawmakers.

“No they weren’t. He wasn’t there. He ought to be refraining from inflammatory rhetoric himself,” Frank said.

Some Democrats have felt the effects of the charged environment firsthand. Someone threw a brick through the window of Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter’s (D-N.Y.) district office Friday, an incident now being investigated by the Capitol Police and the FBI.

Slaughter said her office has been getting “threatened constantly” as the health care debate has run its course.

“The shouting of something as derogatory as ‘baby killer’ is bad, but what’s even worse is inciting people in the galleries to shout and jeer, encouraging crowds that are making threatening and racist comments, and tolerating a climate of incivility,” Slaughter said.

Correction: March 26, 2010

The article incorrectly described a Feb. 24 incident on the House floor. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) withdrew remarks he made about the Republican Party and the insurance industry following an objection and a request that Weiner’s comments be removed from the record.