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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to determine is how many of the alleged violations actually involved prohibited speech because a large number were withdrawn before a ruling was handed down. Since 1995, for example, about one-fourth of the alleged violations were ruled out of order and three-fourths were withdrawn before a ruling was made.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.