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.