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Tobacco Use: You've Come a Long Way, Congress

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
These days, smokers are largely forced outside, even on the Capitol campus. But Congress’ long history is entwined with tobacco.

Tobacco use in Congress just isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of smoke-filled committee rooms and chambers. But one practice of a bygone era persists: Members can still chew — and spit — tobacco in their respective legislative bodies.

When Charles Dickens wrote about the “handsomely carpeted” chambers of the House and Senate in 1842, he gave visitors this advice: Do not look at the floor, and if you drop anything, do not pick it up “with an ungloved hand on any account.”

So prevalent was chewing tobacco — and so bad was the aim — that the condition of the carpets, Dickens wrote, “do not admit of being described.”

Regulations restricting smoking in the Capitol have steadily reduced the number of places where members can light up. The only truly safe indoor spots to smoke now are members’ offices. And you better not reside next to Rep. Keith Ellison; the Minnesota Democrat once called the authorities on Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., for smoking a cigar. Still, regulations regarding the freedom to chew and spit have been left largely intact.

You could even say the Senate encourages the practice: There are still two spittoons on the Senate floor.

While the bowl-shaped vessels haven’t seen any amber oozes since former Sen. Herman E. Talmadge, D-Ga., left the Senate in 1981, the sergeant-at-arms says a senator could spit into them any day now.

The House doesn’t have any spittoons, even though every desk once came with one, but representatives can still discharge into makeshift spitters with impunity. However, the House parliamentarian notes that the decision to allow chewing and spitting on the floor ultimately rests with the presiding chairman, and no member, as “Jefferson’s Manual” points out, is allowed “to disturb another in his speech” by spitting.

It is unclear how many times that rule has been enforced, if ever. But the rule’s existence harks back to a time when the House didn’t vote by electronic device or fill its time with one-minute speeches.

These days, it is rare to witness a member chewing tobacco while performing official congressional business. But it does happen.

The Hudson Incident

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., recently sat through an Education and the Workforce Committee markup packing a fat lip. In between the occasional expectoration into a paper-cup-turned-spittoon, Hudson took swigs of Dr Pepper, the real, full-flavored Dr Pepper, not the diet stuff.

No one seemed to mind, or really notice. Not the panel’s chairman, John Kline, R-Minn., nor Susan W. Brooks, R-Ind., who sat beside Hudson and shared multiple conversations with him as he got his nicotine fix.

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