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Members Need Basic Training in Decorum

I am often asked by people who live outside the D.C. solar system: “When are Members of Congress going to stop all that partisan bickering and start working together for the national good?”

[IMGCAP(1)]It is sometimes difficult to defend Congress’ ways, especially when examples of Members behaving badly are trotted out regularly on the nightly news. All this came to mind again during the heat of the health care debate in March — a month that, from a parliamentary standpoint, went out like a lion in a blustery squall. There were Members talking over each other and exchanging insults. A few even cheered on protesters being evicted from the galleries for creating a disturbance. What was the world’s greatest deliberative democracy coming to?

People understandably get the impression through the media that all Members are nasty to each other all the time and that Capitol Hill is nothing but a 24/7 cat and dog fight.

I try to explain that such scintillating television clips present a distorted picture (the equivalent to the television mandate to get “bang-bang” in war coverage is to get “shout-shout” in Congressional coverage). However, any extended viewing of Congress’ proceedings on C-SPAN reveals Members droning on endlessly from staff-prepared scripts (a surefire cure for insomnia). There is usually very little interaction or real debate, especially since few Members are actually present on the floor. Members are more interested in getting their positions on record than they are in defending them or challenging others.

When Members do engage each other in debate, their tone is usually civil. Only rarely do their disagreements escalate into heated exchanges. A Russian visitor to the House gallery in the early 20th century observed: “Your Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens, and then, everyone disagrees.”

When such disagreements become shouting matches, they reflect poorly on the entire body. That was the perception conveyed during the health care debate in the House even though most Members conducted themselves in a civil manner befitting the historic occasion. Setting aside the most egregious examples of bad behavior, there were still lesser breaches of decorum during that debate that were disturbing precisely because the anger and bitterness generated can potentially infect the entire body.

It occurred to me in watching C-SPAN that many Members, regardless of tenure, have never been trained in the rules of decorum in debate (except for a long-forgotten moment in freshman orientation). Nowadays, Jefferson’s Manual, which is still considered part of the rules of the House, is cited more for its entertainment value than for its wisdom. Yet Members and staff alike would benefit from reviewing that manual and taking its guidance to heart (along with the existing House rule on decorum, which is much less colorful).

As President of the Senate, Vice President Thomas Jefferson distilled from the precedents of the British House of Commons his “manual of parliamentary practice” as a guide for the U.S. Senate. When he compiled the section on “order in debate,” he was drawing on centuries of best practices on how to maintain decency, order and civility in a parliamentary body. Members are not to address themselves to the House or any particular Member, but to the Speaker (proper distance from an adversary is insulating).

Members are not to speak “impertinently or beside the question, superfluously or tediously” and “no person is to use indecent language against the proceedings of the House.” Members are not “to mention a Member then present by his name; but to describe him by his seat in the House.” Members may not use “reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words against a particular Member” nor may they “arraign the motives of those who propose or advocate” a position. No one is “to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another; nor stand up to interrupt him; nor to pass between the Speaker and the speaking Member.” And my favorite: “If a Member finds that it is not the inclination of the House to hear him … it is his most prudent way to submit to the pleasure of the House and sit down.”

Yes, many of these rules seem quaint, even antiquated. But Members who were admonished by the Speaker for transgressing them during the health care debate learned they are there for a reason, and that is to ensure that the proceedings remain orderly, civil and educational, and do not degenerate into personalities and harsh rhetoric. The rules are grounded in the necessity for mutual respect — a commodity without which no civilized body can long endure.

I am only left to wonder whether things have become so partisan that Members are blinded to that necessity or are simply so intimidated by peer pressures that they are afraid to stand up for what is best for the institution. Whatever the reason, it’s a sorry state of affairs for Congress. A periodic refresher course on decorum in debate, convened before a bipartisan caucus of all Members, would be a constructive first step in reversing this downward spiral.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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