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Dysfunction in Congress a National Crisis

Ray Smock: The current Congress has become largely dysfunctional because extreme partisanship and ideological differences are preventing the deliberative process from completing its most important function, which is to be one of the two governing branches of government.

In a radio broadcast in 1935, the great humorist Will Rogers explained how civility works in the U. S. Senate.

will rogers statue

 “They always call each other gentlemen there. By the tone they put in the word it would be more appropriate if they come right out and said ‘does the coyote from Maine yield?’ Then the man from Maine says ‘I yield,’ for if he don’t, the other guy keeps on talking anyhow. So the coyote from Maine says ‘I yield to the polecat from Oregon.”

A tall bronze statue of Will Rogers stands outside the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, facing the chamber so, as the story goes, he can keep an eye on the goings on there. Rogers was no social or political scientist but his keen observations of the House and Senate rank him among the best of the many people over the past two centuries, both Americans and foreigners, who have tried to figure out this citadel of democracy.

Much has been written in the last thirty years about the decline of civility in Congress, in both the House and Senate, but especially the larger House, the one most closely associated with the views and attitudes of the American people because its members are elected every two years in local districts. Anyone who follows Congress closely knows that the House and Senate are vastly different bodies, not only in size, but in terms of rules, constitutional functions, and the methods of conducting daily business.

Both bodies are constitutionally designed to be places of deliberation. The Senate has the luxury of unlimited debate, while the House, because of its size, limits the time an individual member may speak on an issue, sometimes to as little as thirty seconds. Through much of congressional history the common wisdom has held that the Senate tends to cool the passions of the House, the body of raw numbers and raw democracy.

The question of civility is an extremely important matter and has been since the first House and Senate set down their rules of conducting business in 1789. As Will Rogers observed, members call themselves gentlemen (and later including gentlewomen), because the alternatives would be to call one another polecats and coyotes, or worse, liars, hypocrites, stupid, dumb, demagogues, socialists, communists, none of which lend themselves to the deliberative process so important to the governance of the nation.

Has civility declined in recent years? We can look back in history to the decade before the Civil War, where members wrestled one another or engaged in fist fights on the floor of the House. People often cite the example of South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks, who went over to the floor of the Senate one day in 1856 and beat Charles Sumner of Massachusetts senseless with a cane. The extremes of the 1850s, the complete breakdown of the art of compromise, led to war and the loss of more than 600,000 American lives.

Compared to the 1850s, 2011 doesn’t seem so bad. But this is a false analogy, dealing with two vastly different times and cultures. In the past three decades, there have been plenty of nasty words, an overrated tie-pulling incident, some pushing and shoving, some expletives deleted, all seemingly minor stuff when compared with the brawls and beatings (and even the occasional duels) from earlier centuries.

Despite the brawls of past history I maintain that the civility in Congress, in both bodies, but especially in the House, is at one of the lowest ebbs in congressional history. It is a crisis that should concern all Americans. The current Congress has become largely dysfunctional because extreme partisanship and ideological differences are preventing the deliberative process from completing its most important function, which is to be one of the two governing branches of government. In the 1850s we saw the steady breakdown of the ability to compromise on the issue of slavery, but Congress continued to govern through the whole process of secession and the Civil War. There were no government shutdowns, or threats of shutdowns.

The late Poet Laureate of the United States Howard Nemerov delivered a poem before the joint meeting of Congress in 1989 that commemorated the 200th anniversary of Congress. In that poem he called Congress “the fulcrum of us all.” A fulcrum is the balancing point. Without a fulcrum there is no way to move decisions from the realm of partisan politics to that of government policy and law. Congress, especially the House, has lost its fulcrum, including a basic respect for the rules and traditions that have been developed over time to make the body function.

We need a new way to measure civility and dysfunction than the limited historical anecdotes of the past or the feeble attempts of social and political scientists to count things, make charts, and declare civility in Congress to be better, worse, or about the same.

A prime example of the latter is a study released on September 28, 2011, by the prestigious Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The report, “Civility in Congress (1935-2011) as reflected in the Taking Down process,” was written by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a distinguished scholar and one of the wisest heads in America when it comes to understanding political campaigns, media, and mass communications. Yet this report is so obtuse, so unreal, that I offer it as Exhibit A on why we need to completely rethink how we study Congress.

The House of Representatives has a parliamentary procedure, described in the Rules of the House, which is designed to keep members from offending one another or the president of the United States, their most frequent target when they are not zeroing in on one another. By this device the House can censure members who get out of line by calling one another polecats or coyotes, to use Will Rogers’s examples, or more aptly to keep members from calling one another liars and hypocrites, two of the most common examples of incivility.

If a member objects to inflammatory language, he can ask the Speaker, or the person occupying the chair, to have the offending words “taken down.” The chair, in consultation with the Parliamentarian, determines if the words are out of bounds and makes a ruling. The offending member may apologize or risk being reprimanded and losing floor privileges for the rest of that day’s session.

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Since a record of incidents of words taken down can be found in the Congressional Record, it is possible to tabulate all the cases and attempt to draw conclusions from the numbers. The Annenberg study states that measuring the taking down process is “the most reliable measure of the institution’s own perception of breaches of decorum on the floor.” It may be the most reliable, from the narrow standpoint of what we can count. But it is hardly the most revealing.

The Annenberg study counts things that tell us nothing about how incivility affects the governing process or legislative outcomes. My objection to this study is that it is based on the assumption that civility can be measured by the number of times members of the House call one another names. The definition of civility has to be more substantial than name-calling. Members who call one another names have still been able to work together and do their jobs as legislators. As Jim Leach, a former congressman and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities put it: “Four-letter words may offend. But some of the politest conversations in public life can be the most uncivil.”

The heat of debate, the pressure of the moment, can get to the most civil of members. On the other hand, as the Annenberg study shows, the numbers of incidents of words taken down have been inflated by certain members who don’t mind pushing the envelope. The most recent record holder for the number of times his words were taken down is former Pennsylvania congressman Robert Walker, a floor manager for Speaker Newt Gingrich, who took pride in not letting the Democrats get away with anything while he was on the floor.

One of the most famous incidents of words being taken down occurred in 1984 when I was on the Hill serving as House historian. House proceedings were televised but under House rules the camera was allowed to focus only on the person speaking. A number of House Republicans made reputations for themselves using “special orders,” a time after regular House business, where members could reserve time to speak from the floor for up to an hour on any topic. Newt Gingrich, Robert Walker, Trent Lott, Vin Weber, and others, often referred to as the “Young Turks” used televised special orders effectively and their success, while slow in coming, was no small part of the rise of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party’s victory in 1994 that gave them the majority of the House for the first time in forty years.

On May 10, 1984, Speaker O’Neill was in his office watching special orders on the House television system. Robert Walker made comments and gestured as if the Democrats he was talking to were in the room. O’Neill reacted by ordering the camera focused on Walker to pan the House chamber, which was empty. Walker was talking to himself and putting on a good act for television viewers. Speaker O’Neill later admitted he should have notified the Republican leadership in any change of policy on the use of cameras, but Republicans were naturally furious about O’Neill’s unilateral action.

A few days later, with tempers still on edge, Newt Gingrich, speaking on Central America during special orders, implied that Democrats were being disloyal to the country, and he referred specifically to Edward Boland of Massachusetts, O’Neill’s close friend, who was the leader in opposition to President Reagan’s attempts to fund contra rebels in Nicaragua. Gingrich’s words met no opposition because the chamber was empty. On May 14, O’Neill made reference in the chamber to Gingrich’s characterizations of Democrats as “low” but no one objected. On May 15, Speaker O’Neill still angry, left the chair and spoke from the well of the House. Of Gingrich’s remarks, O’Neill said: “My personal opinion is this: You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, and you challenged their Americanism, and it is the lowest thing I have ever seen in my thirty-two years in Congress.”

Trent Lott, prompted by senior Republican staff member, Billy Pitts, an expert on House rules, immediately objected to the Speaker’s language and demanded his words be taken down. The parliamentarian determined that the Speaker’s use of “lowest” constituted inappropriate language and his words were taken down. This incident was clearly a case of incivility worthy of note. Gingrich and the Young Turks had bested the Speaker of the House. It put them on the map and moved them up in power and recognition as more than backbench partisans. But who was being uncivil? Was it the Republican members who were pushing the envelope of decorum through the use of special orders, or was it Tip O’Neill for calling their tactics the lowest thing he had seen in thirty-two years in Congress? How do you count this if you are counting examples of incivility? The context is more important than the technical issue of words taken down.

The Annenberg study concluded that for the most part Congress has operated in a civil manner based on the narrow study of counting the number of times words were taken down. The study noted spikes in incivility in the 104th Congress, when Newt Gingrich became Speaker and the Democrats found themselves in the minority for the first time in their congressional careers. Anyone on the Hill during this transition could tell stories of tension and raw nerves. The Annenberg study notes an increase in incivility in the current 112th Congress due in part to the fact that Republicans took over the chamber again and anytime there is a turnover of party majority tensions are higher.

It is time to put such studies as this on the shelf and come up with more comprehensive ways of measuring the ability of members of Congress to behave in a civil manner. As Will Rogers suggests, it’s not just the words but the tone that can describe incivility. How many incidents have occurred where tempers flared, where rhetoric became heated, where members shook fingers at one another, where voices were raised in anger, yet no words were taken down? This kind of thing does not lend itself to easy counting and without a clean data set the political scientist is at a loss.

We need to explore the relationship between incivility and governance. The ability to govern should be the hallmark of how we gauge congressional performance. How well are the members upholding their oath to defend the Constitution and how well are they performing their duties under Article 1 of the Constitution? What happens when we elect members of Congress who are basically anti-government? This has been a trend since President Reagan declared that “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Members from previous generations had respect for Congress as a constitutional institution. They respected its traditions, mores, and rules. Polarized, highly partisan members today are less interested in learning the rules and traditions. They too often see these as impediments rather than as tools for governing. Members can not only be uncivil to one another but to the very institution of Congress.

Congress can often appear to be dysfunctional if we approach it from a partisan point of view. If our particular agenda is not going through Congress we might conclude Congress is not doing its job. We all get impatient with the inefficiency of Congress. But we should recall that Congress was constitutionally designed to be inefficient even before the rise of our two-party system. Tip O’Neill used to say “If you want efficient government, get yourself a dictatorship.”

Congress becomes dysfunctional when it loses its ability to compromise on matters of governance and legislation. Filibusters and inaction alone are not necessarily signs of dysfunction. They may simply represent part of the political process. But shutting down the government or threatening government shut-downs and consistently failing to pass regular appropriations bills is not governance. It’s akin anarchy—the ultimate expression of incivility. I put dysfunction at the top of my list of congressional concerns, not whether members are calling one another names more or less often than usual or whether they’re engaging in more filibusters. Congress is the place where all the voices should be heard even if we don’t like what they are saying. But the main thing is that it is a branch of government that needs to govern not for partisan gain alone, not for the sake of some ideology, not to keep a seat in Congress, but to serve the American people, not just some of us, but all of us.

Ray Smock

Ray Smock is director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. He served as Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995. 

Republished with permission from History News Network