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Incivility May Be Down, but ‘Uncivility’ Persists

Perhaps we should take heart at the findings of a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center that “the 112th Congress has not produced the sorts of incivility that disrupted the 104th Congress” and that this past decade has been more civil than the previous decade.

The Annenberg Center’s latest report, “Civility in Congress (1935-2011) as Reflected in the Taking Down Process,” issued Sept. 28, tracks House proceedings through the first six months of last year. Despite its positive findings, the report cautions that the current Congress is “at risk of a spike in incivility” if history is any guide. Historically (going back at least to 1995), incivility has increased during the first sessions of “turnover” Congresses — those in which party control changes.

In the House of Representatives the taking down process involves someone demanding that the words of a Member be taken down for violating the House rule forbidding engaging in personalities during debate. The demand brings the proceedings of the House to a halt while the stenographer translates the transcription tape’s markings into words that can then be read aloud by the Clerk.

Often before the words are read back and the chairman can rule on them, the alleged offender asks unanimous consent to withdraw the words (strike them from the record). If not objected to, the Member may continue to speak. If the words are ruled out of order, they are usually stricken by unanimous consent and the Member is barred from speaking the rest of the day except by leave of the House — usually contingent on the offending Member’s apology.

What the Annenberg study found over time was an increasing incidence of words being taken down between 1935 and the 1990s. What’s difficult to determine is how many of the alleged violations actually involved prohibited speech because a large number were withdrawn before a ruling was handed down. Since 1995, for example, about one-fourth of the alleged violations were ruled out of order and three-fourths were withdrawn before a ruling was made.

All three of the taking down instances the study identifies through June of last year involved a withdrawal of the words before a ruling was made. Only one might be considered a personal affront. The accused Member implied a previous speaker had committed the “political lie of the year,” as characterized by PolitiFact, by referring to the 2010 health care law as a “government takeover of health care.” The other two instances involved a Member referring to “the socialist Members of this body” and another accusing certain unnamed conservatives of being either ignorant or lying. These instances did not directly impugn the motives, honesty or integrity of specific Members. Instead, they were more a case of group smear — tarring with a broad brush persons who held particular views.

Despite the study’s warning that there might be a spike in instances in the first session because of the change in party control from the previous Congress, my search reveals no additional alleged violations last year. Moreover, there has been only one instance this year. On March 7, the offending Member’s words were ruled out of order and he was barred from speaking the rest of the day. He later admitted he had intentionally provoked the incident by charging a member of the Republican leadership with making “the most hypocritical and dishonest statement I have heard uttered in this House” (a double no-no).

The main problem with attempting to gauge incivility by such a narrow metric as the frequency of words taken down is that it ignores other symptoms that better pinpoint the source and nature of the actual problem. I am often asked whether things are nastier in Congress today than when I was a staffer (1969-1997), and I answer, “yes.” But I carefully explain that does not mean Members are constantly hurling epithets at one another. Most floor speeches today are mild, mannerly and mushy.

I draw a distinction between “incivil,” which I define as hostile and vituperative, and “uncivil,” which I define as lacking in common courtesy. It is the difference between active and passive rudeness. Congress today is mainly guilty of the latter sin. Things have become so polarized between the parties that Members seldom engage each other in verbal exchanges on the floor. Members have their set speeches and tend to talk past one another. If a Member asks another Member to yield for a question, most of the time the Member speaking brusquely refuses for fear of being diverted from his scripted remarks or actually engaging a Member of the other party in a colloquy.

We used to call these exchanges “debates.” Any invitation to do so now is considered an enemy assault. Members might ponder how the common courtesy of yielding can be reciprocal and lead to a better understanding of the issues at hand. Such small building blocks to greater communication across the aisle can go a long way toward healing the deep rifts that now inhibit any form of cooperation or compromise between the parties.

Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a visiting scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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