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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Words Taken Down

In September, the Annenberg Public Policy Center issued a report titled "Civility in Congress (1935-2011) as Reflected in the Taking Down Process."
By adopting the rules at the beginning of a new Congress, the membership voluntarily limits the range of rhetoric acceptable on the floor. When Members wonder why they cannot call another Member a liar or a hypocrite even if the evidence justifies the label, the answer is not simply that the rules of the House forbid it; rather, it is that the membership has voluntarily agreed by vote that these are the rules under which the House will operate during that Congress. Among other things, the rules caution a Member not to call another a liar even if she or he is not telling the truth, not to impugn another’s integrity even if their actions invite it, and not to call someone a hypocrite even if she or he deserves it. These boundaries are designed to create a climate conducive to deliberation. Central to the ability to deliberate is the presumption of mutual respect. [emphasis added]
Two findings from the report should reassure advocates of deliberative democracy:

  • Even in the two years with the highest number of taking down rulings and proceedings that resulted in words out of order, very few of the words spoken in that session elicited objection. Overall, civility, not incivility, is the norm in the House.
  • By two measures, the number of times a demand to take down words has gone to a ruling and the number of times words have been held to be out of order as a result of this process, the recent Congresses are operating at a civility level comparable to the norm.
Still, breaches of decorum do occur. Back in 1984, as a previous post explained, Newt Gingrich provoked Speaker Tip O'Neill into a "words taken down" incident. After he became speaker, one of his critics crossed the line on the House floor.   The Washington Examiner reports on a comparable event yesterday:
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., received a day-long ban from speaking on the House floor today, and the comments he had made were removed from the record, after he violated House rules with a personal attack on Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
"I have never seen truth stood on its head more rapidly than my colleague from Texas [just did]," Frank said today after Hensarling spoke on the House Floor. "For the gentleman from Texas -- having been part of the leadership that engaged in that shameful maneuver -- to now accuse us of being excessively concerned with credit is the most hypocritical and dishonest statement I have heard uttered in this House." Before making those remarks, Frank had earlier akncowledged that "you may not accuse anyone else of being disingenuous, under the House rules."
Hensarling admonished Frank for worrying about who gets the credit for the legislation, prompting Frank's impermissible remarks, which Hensarling then asked to be removed from the House record in keeping with House rules. "Without objection, the offending words are stricken from the record," the House chair said. A member of Congress who has had his comments removed from the record may not speak on the Floor for the rest of the day, "even on yielded time," according to House practice.