The lies roll off their tongues so easily. They can say the most outlandish things with such ease, you would swear that it was Mephistopheles himself that was up there speaking.–Rep. Martin Hoke (June 8, 1995)[i]
You are one of the most impolite Members I have ever seen in my service in this House.–Rep. David Obey (June 27, 1996)[ii]
They always say “gentleman” in there. But the tone…it would sound right if they come right out and said “Does the coyote from Maine yield?” You know what I mean; that’s about the way it sounds. So the coyote from Maine says, “I yield to the polecat from Oregon,” for if he don’t, the other guy will keep on talking anyhow. You know he don’t say “polecat,” but he says “gentleman” in such a way that it’s almost like polecat. They are very polite in there.–American Humorist Will Rogers[iii]
Few things in Congress are as entertaining as a good, sharp spat between legislators. Few things are as disruptive to the legislative process too.
It is tempting to dismiss civility as a wimp’s affectation. Nonetheless, the House needs civility to operate effectively. In the first place, civility is an essential condition for Members to form relationships with each other, particularly when they are of opposing parties. As much as the House is a highly partisan body, moving bills is all the easier if there is substantial buy-in from both Republicans and Democrats, which requires strong relations between Members of both parties. Conversely, breaches of decorum disrupt the House’s carefully scheduled and even “choreographed” business, slowing down its work. The Constitution makes the legislative process slow and challenging, and civility makes this work so much the easier.
Recognizing the importance of civility in its deliberations, the House has rules to prohibit particularly uncivil—“unparliamentary”—language and provides a procedure, known as “taking words down,” to discipline Members who violate the rules of decorum in debate. Although politics these days seems especially acrimonious, words are not taken down often, but when they are, it can disrupt the legislative process significantly. For instance, in the most recent case, which occurred when Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s words were taken down on July 16, 2019, the House spent over two and a half hours resolving the issue before returning to the business at hand.
Since taking words down can interrupt the House’s business significantly, it is important to remember that there are, in fact, ways Members can settle disputes with grace and dignity. Conversely, a failure to settle issues well can further erode relations between participants in the debate and between the parties in general. The House has numerous examples of Members settling their disputes well and poorly. Here we highlight several examples of how the House has settled instances of incivility since the 104th Congress. Though the words taken down process is not often used, remembering these techniques is critical when it does happen. With the country going into an election year and the House having impeached the President, tensions between the two parties are bound to be at an all-time high. Knowing how to resolve issues in this fraught context will allow Members to ensure that breaches of decorum do not derail the House’s business.
Rules about Civility in Debate
Incivility and indecency in legislative bodies is not a new issue. The origins of the House’s rules about civility predate Congress itself and go back to the British Parliament. In drafting the Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which still informs how the House operates, Thomas Jefferson relied extensively on British procedure. The Manual notes that Members should not speak “impertinently” and should not use “reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words against a particular member.”[iv] Additionally, the Manual describes a process to discipline “unmannerly” Members that is similar to the process the House uses today.
The Constitution specifically empowers each Chamber to discipline its own Members for “disorderly behavior” (Article I, Section 5). The standing rules of the House define “disorderly behavior,” including in speech, and provides at least some guidance on discipline. Clause 2 of rule I requires the Speaker to “preserve order and decorum” in the House. House Rule XVII governs decorum and debate for the Chamber. The rule notes, “Remarks in debate (which may include references to the Senate or its Members) shall be confined to the question under debate, avoiding personality.”[v] The President and Vice President also protected by the House’s rule against attacking personalities.
“Avoiding personalities” means that Members may not refer to a House colleague, a Senator or the President in a derogatory manner, nor may they attack their motives. Yet “avoiding personality” is vague, so the House has established precedents that flesh out what words and phrases are considered “unparliamentary,” i.e., violations of the rules of decorum. In creating precedents, Speakers have attempted to balance the need for Members to speak freely and the House’s interest in maintaining a civil atmosphere. So even if Members must avoid personalities, they can certainly criticize their colleagues’ statements. For instance, a Member may say that a statement by another Member is untrue; however, they may not say that a statement is a lie, which would be to cast an aspersion on their colleague’s moral conduct. In one case, a Member was permitted to say he did “not believe a word that [another Member] said.” In another case, however, a Member was not permitted to say that another Member’s statement was “a base lie.”[vi] Following these precedents and the underlying principles allows Members to debate energetically without permitting the House to degenerate into unproductive shouting matches.
(For an introduction to the precedents on unparliamentary language, including the cases referred to above, see House Practice: A Guide to the Rules, Precedents, and Procedures of the House, a one-volume synthesis of how the House works, prepared by the Parliamentarians.)
The Process of Taking Words Down
If a Member thinks that a colleague who is speaking has violated the House’s rules of decorum, Clause 4 of Rule XVII permits the Member to ask that the Chair call the speaking Member to order. The Member who thinks the rules have been violated should immediately rise and demand that their colleague’s “words be taken down.” The Chair will order the speaker to suspend and be seated. The Member who raised the point of order should indicate which words they take exception to. The Reading Clerk works with the official reporters (the House stenographers) to transcribe the words and the Chair will direct the Reading Clerk to read the words to the House. If the Committee of the Whole is sitting, the Committee rises, since only the Speaker or Speaker pro tempore, may rule on the propriety of the words. When the House reconvenes, the Committee Chair reports to the Speaker what happened, and the Clerk reads the words again. The Speaker or Speaker pro tempore then rules whether they were out of bounds. If the Speaker determines that the Member has violated the rule of decorum, they may not speak again for that day, unless by unanimous consent or by motion. The offensive words may be stricken from the record by unanimous consent or by a motion. Normally, the Chair will ask unanimous consent that the words be stricken and then ask unanimous consent that the offending Member’s debate privileges be restored. Another Member may also move that the offending Member’s debate privileges be restored.[vii]
Short of going through the entire words taken down process, the Speaker may also take the initiative to admonish Members to avoid personalities in debate.
Instances of Words Being Taken Down Since the 104th Congress
To find instances of words being taken down, we searched the Congressional Record online for “taken down,” since that phrase is used in the demand. We reviewed the text of the Congressional Record for instances where the Clerk was directed to report the words and instances where the process was referred to but the Clerk was not directed to report the words. The latter includes cases where a Member did not make the demand in time or when a Member was talking about civility in general but was not making a particular demand; such incidents are useful since they do show how the procedure affects the House and are indicators of civility in the Chamber. When the Chair did instruct the Clerk to report the words, we watched recordings of the incident, if they were available; this provided additional information, like tone and body language, which the Record does not provide but are critical in understanding particular cases.
Since the beginning of the 104th Congress, which convened on January 3, 1995, we counted 79 instances where the process of taking down words had begun. In 38 cases (48 percent), the issue was resolved when the offending Member asked for their words to be withdrawn. In 27 cases (34 percent), the Chair issued a ruling. Most of these (16), were in the 104th Congress alone, in which the Republicans took over the House after 40 years in the minority. In 13 (16 percent), the Member who made the demand later withdrew it. In one incident, the two Members in the dispute demanded that each other’s words be taken down: One of the Members withdrew his demand, and the other withdrew his words.
Most of the instances of words being taken down occurred in the 104th Congress, which had 26 demands. The 110th Congress, which preceded the Republican retaking of the House in the 2010 elections, had the second greatest number of demands, with 11. After that was the 105th Congress, with 10 demands. Although the 115th Congress might have seemed especially uncivil owing to the controversies surrounding President Donald Trump and an election that led to a switch in party control of the House, there were only two demands for words to be taken down, neither of which required the Chair to actually rule. (In one case the demand was withdrawn, and in the other, the offensive words were withdrawn by unanimous consent.) Similarly, in the ongoing 116th Congress, there have been only two instances of words being taken down.
Can any trends be discerned from the numbers of incidents of words being taken down? The heightened number of cases of words being taken down in the 104th Congress and the 110th Congress could be taken to suggest that there are increases in incivility when there are pending shifts in political power. Indeed, at the beginning of the 104th Congress, during one incident, a Republican noted, “This is the beginning of a new Congress with a new structure. All of us are testing limits.”[viii] On the other hand, the comparatively few cases in the 115th and 116th Congresses suggest that it is not always the case that heightened incivility accompanies changes in the political dynamics in Washington.
It is not impossible to say that one Congress is more or less civil than another, but such judgements tend to be subjective. Certainly, using the words taken down process as the sole indicator would be mistaken and would miss the majority of instances of incivility. For instance, a Member must actually demand that the words be taken down, so there could be loads of instances of incivility that go unnoticed if you only look for this particular parliamentary procedure. Additionally, it would not account for the countless instances of incivility where Members launch broadsides against each other in the traditional and digital media, let alone attacks that go on behind the scenes in the halls of Congress. Furthermore, an incident where words are taken down should not necessarily be construed as related to partisanship (for example, the very rare occasions of intra-party disputes). Additionally, certain Members are particularly likely to be involved in an incident, either as offenders or offended (or both!), suggesting that some persons are simply more inclined to personalities. The entrance and exit of such people from Congress could explain the variations in the frequency of words taken down across Congresses. For instance, in the 104th Congress, two particular Representatives were party to a combined 9 incidents of words being taken down. That Congress had 26 incidents in total, so these two were party to over a third. They departed at the end of the 104th Congress, and in the next Congress, there were only 10 incidents in total. If they had remained, would there have been additional instances of words being taken down? It seems quite likely.
As suggested previously, there are a number of reasons words might be taken down. From reviewing the Congressional Record, it is not always clear on what grounds a Member demanded that words be taken down (especially in those cases where the Chair rules that the words are in order). However, there are plenty of instances where the reason is clear. In 14 cases, the speaker made an accusation of lying, which recordings of the incidents suggest are particularly incendiary. Six incidents included attacks on the House Speaker, four of which were directed at Newt Gingrich. On at least six occasions did a speaker allege corruption on the part of their opponents.
The Presidents are particularly susceptible to attack. There were at least 13 instances of words being taken down as an attack on the President (including one which was an attack on the Administration as a whole and another which was an attack on a party’s nominee for the Presidency). Six were directed at President Bill Clinton; four at President George W. Bush or his Administration; and one at Senator John Kerry, as a Democratic candidate for President. Somewhat surprisingly, there have only been two instances of words being taken down as an attack on President Trump. One of these was an incident where Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the President’s tweets as racist during a debate on a resolution condemning his tweets as racist. This incident is particularly noteworthy since it was the first time that a sitting Speaker’s words were taken down since Speaker Tip O’Neill’s were in 1984 (which reportedly was the first time that had happened since 1798). The other incident in the 116th Congress occurred during a one-minute speech on the same tweets earlier on the same day as the Pelosi.
I Object: A Sign that Things Are Really Bad
Unanimous consent may be used to expedite the words taken down process, and the way unanimous consent is used can indicate how fraught are the relations between the participants in the debate. A rule of thumb is that the more often there are objections to unanimous consent requests, the more acrimonious the debates. Unanimous consent may be used at the beginning of the process, to avert the need for the Chair to rule on the suitability of the words. It most expeditiously resolves the issue when the Member who allegedly broke the rules immediately requests that their offensive words may be withdrawn; if no one objects, debate can proceed with minimal interruption. Many times, however, the offending speaker will wait until the Clerk is transcribing the words before asking for unanimous consent. When a Member asks unanimous consent that their offending words be withdrawn, another Member might reserve the right to object. This allows them to speak before indicating whether they will object. Sometimes a reserving Member might simply admonish their colleagues to practice civility, then withdraw the reservation and agree to the request. Other times they will condition their agreement to the request upon the extension of an apology from the offending Member. Should the offending Member refuse to apologize—even though they have asked that their words be withdrawn—the process will continue until the Chair rules on the suitability of the words.
Unanimous consent may also be used after the Chair rules that certain words are out of order, and objections to requests may drag out the process. Normally, once the Chair rules that words are unparliamentary, he or she asks unanimous consent that the offending words be stricken from the record. Though it is rare, a Member may object to this request. If they are not stricken by unanimous consent, they may be removed by motion, which typically entails a time-consuming recorded vote. Members usually do not stay on the Floor watching debate, so this means they must be summoned from whatever else they are doing to vote on the motion. After this question is disposed of, the Chair or another Member may ask unanimous consent that the disciplined Member’s debate privileges may be restored immediately. Normally, the House agrees to this, but in particularly acrimonious cases, a Member may object. Then the Chair may put before the House the question of whether the Member’s debate privileges are to be restored, or a Member may make a motion for this. If this happens, the House votes, and, as with other contentious issues, it is normally a recorded vote. At this point, Members are often on the Floor already, having been summoned for a vote on whether to strike the words from the record. On both these questions, the Members typically vote along party lines. (If the offending Member is of the majority party, it gives the minority party a reason to complain that the majority is bending the rules for its benefit. In one sense, it is correct that they are departing from the rules, since they revoke a Member’s debating privileges for the day if their words are unparliamentary. In another sense, however, this departure from the rules is precisely the House’s standard practice.)
All in all, objections to unanimous consent requests can be particularly time consuming and disruptive to the House’s business and a strong indicator that the process has been sidetracked significantly.
Let Things Slide but Fire a Warning Shot
Since taking words down can be such a disruptive process, Members can find ways to avoid the demand unless the incident is particularly egregious. One way that Members can promote civility on the Floor is by putting a colleague on notice that they are potentially violating the rules of decorum, while declining to demand that words be taken down. For instance, Representative Gerald Solomon, who became Chairman of the House Rules Committee in 1995 when the Republicans took the House, warned his colleagues on multiple occasions rather than demanded words be taken down. In one 1996 case, Solomon admonished:
I would just say to my good friend, too, he ought to be careful about how he refers to Members because you could have your words taken down. I would never do that to one of my best friends, but we should be accurate.[ix]
Such warnings allow the House to proceed without interruption. Solomon, however, was judicious in his use of admonitions, and did demand that words be taken down in other cases, suggesting are certain times when it should be used.
A more recent example, from June 2019, could have become especially acrimonious but was defused by a Member who refused to press his advantage while still calling a colleague to account. During a debate on Federal funding for abortion, one Member said it was “tiring to hear from so many sex-starved males on this Floor talk about a woman’s right to choose.” The comment was so surprising that both congressional and national news outlets picked it up—a sure sign that something interesting has happened in debate.
Had a Republican really wanted, he or she could have demanded that the words be taken down and it is entirely possible that the Chair would have ruled them out of order. When it came time for the Chair to make his customary unanimous consent request to permit the Member to proceed in order, it is quite possible that a Republican would have objected, which would have led to a time-consuming vote on motion on to restore the Member’s debating privileges. In all likelihood, this would have resulted in a party-line vote, which would have given the Republican minority another reason to say that the majority Democrats were setting a double standard and ignoring the rule prohibits a Member from speaking that day after they were ruled out of order. However, Representative Rob Woodall of Georgia, who managed this debate for the Republicans, prevented any such scenario but still held his colleague accountable. Without even referring to the taking words down process, he interjected, asking whether his Democratic colleague would like to rephrase herself. She promptly offered to withdraw the offensive statement, and Woodall noted, “I know my colleague well, and I thoroughly enjoy working with her on the Rules Committee.”[x] No doubt the original statement still stung the Republicans, but Woodall’s actions balanced, on the one hand, the real need for satisfaction for a breach of decorum and, on the other hand, the House’s interest in limiting the disruption the infraction caused.
Bringing Enemies to Peace
Some incidents may seem to become utterly and completely intractable but can nonetheless be settled with some degree of dignity, especially with an exchange of apologies, and perhaps the well-placed intervention of a colleague. At the end of June 1996, Representatives J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ) and David Obey (D-WI) had a particularly personal exchange, leading to Hayworth demanding that words be taken down when Obey said, “You are one of the most impolite Members I have ever seen in my service in this House.”[xi] As the Reading Clerk worked through the transcription of the words, Obey sought unanimous consent to withdraw his remark. The Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas asked him to apologize or else he would object. Obey said he would apologize only if Hayworth also apologized, so DeLay objected.
After the words were ruled out of order, the Chair sought unanimous consent to restore Obey’s debating privileges. DeLay reserved the right to object, demanding an apology. Obey declined, and DeLay objected. Some Members then engaged in parliamentary inquiries with the Chair. In one unusually cheeky inquiry, Representative Pat Roberts of Kansas even referred to a passage of Jefferson’s Manual that noted that it is advisable for the Member speaking to sit down if he finds the House disorderly during his speech.[xii] The Chair declined to rule on whether it applied in this case.
Following Roberts’ parliamentary inquiry, Representative Henry Hyde (R-IL), rose to ask unanimous consent to address the House. He noted the “provocation” and the “heat” in the incident and that both were “reluctant to apologize to each other.” To applause, he suggested that both Members “express regret that this incident happened, and then we can get on with the business of the evening.”[xiii]
Hayworth noted that because of his “utmost respect” for Hyde, he would acquiesce to the request, and Obey did likewise. DeLay then asked unanimous consent for Obey’s debate privileges to be restored. One of the most bitter incidents of words being taken down appears to have ended on a bipartisan note.
Without Hyde’s intervention and the mutual expressions of regret, the dispute could have continued for much longer, with additional parliamentary inquiries and a time-consuming vote on a motion to allow Obey to speak in order. Additionally, it is possible that someone other than Hyde would not have been able to make that same plea. As Hayworth’s statement suggests, Hyde’s colleagues, including Democrats, regarded him highly, and the clout he seemingly brought to the situation is a testament to the importance of developing strong relations with colleagues. In urging his colleagues—explicitly Obey and Hayworth, but implicitly the others as well—to settle down, Hyde was able to help bring a level of order back to a House that had become particularly disorderly. Intervening as Hyde did is not a technique every Member could use to restore civility to a fraught situation, but it is effective when it can be done.
Build Good Habits
A few weeks after the Hayworth-Obey incident, the House experienced an episode that was similarly acrimonious, and which shows how important it is for subsequent legislative action that instances of incivility be resolved with as much grace as possible. On July 25, 1996, Representative Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) accused Representative William Clinger, the Republican Chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and a fellow Pennsylvanian, of saying things in debate that would have left him liable to lawsuit, if he had not been protected by the Constitution’s speech and debate clause. Representative Solomon demanded that the words be taken down. When Kanjorski asked unanimous consent to withdraw the words, another Member reserved the right to object to ask if Kanjorski intended to apologize. He declined, and his colleague objected to his request to withdraw the statement. The Chair ruled against him, saying that he had impugned Clinger’s integrity. A Member objected when the Chair asked that Kanjorski be permitted to speak in order. The Chair then entertained a number of requests from Members to speak out of order about the issue. After some debate, Representative Obey rose and specifically invoked Representative Hyde’s example from a few weeks before and asked the House to allow Representative Kanjorski to apologize. Though Kanjorski had refused to apologize when he made his unanimous consent request earlier in the debate, he now acquiesced, noting that the regretted his part in degrading the House’s civility. The episode concluded with Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey describing Kanjorski’s apology as “quite gracious” and asking that his debate privileges be restored.[xiv] Another breach of decorum was successfully resolved, thanks in part to the example that had been set a few weeks before.
Whereas a happy resolution to a breach in decorum can help the House, a negative one can exacerbate divisions. On January 18, 1995, shortly after the Republicans took control of the House in the 104th Congress, Democratic Representative Carrie Meek of Florida delivered a one-minute speech where she criticized a book deal that Speaker Gingrich had with a publisher. Republicans saw Meek’s statement as an unparliamentary attack on the Speaker. Words were taken down and the Chair ruled against Meek. In a somewhat unusual move, a Democrat appealed the ruling of the Chair, asking the House to overturn the Chair’s decision. In a party-line recorded vote, the House upheld the Chair’s ruling. Then there was another party-line vote on whether to strike her words from the record. Meek was, however, permitted to continue speaking by unanimous consent. C-Span recorded applause once she finished; presumably, only the Democrats joined here.
Although Representative Meek was permitted to proceed in order, her one-minute speech was hardly the last word on the matter. After Meek relinquished the Floor and debate proceeded, there were a number of parliamentary inquiries and points of order related to the issue. Less than 10 minutes after Meek finished, Democratic Representative Harold Volkmer of Missouri then made a statement substantially the same as Meek’s—and referred to the fact that her words were taken down—so the Majority Whip Tom DeLay demanded that those words be taken down too. Later that day, Volkmer demanded that DeLay’s words be taken down, citing the rationale the Chair used to rule Meek’s words out of order. The following day, January 19, the Democrats made a point of order that the Congressional Record was illicitly altered and there were several parliamentary inquiries related to the Meek issue. For instance, Representative David Bonior (D-MI) asked:
The issue that we have before us in basically closing down voices. The Record of this House is being changed arbitrarily…Members are being gagged on the House floor.
The question I have, Mr. Speaker, is this going to be the policy of the new majority in the 104th Congress?[xv]
The next day, January 20, Volkmer also made a lengthy speech about the issue, which turned into a colloquy with Representative Solomon about Reaganomics and the Contract with America.
In the Meek episode, a speech that was supposed to last a minute set into motion a chain of events that consumed time on the House Floor for three days. It is impossible to say for sure, but it is entirely likely that had the initial incident been resolved more favorably to both the parties, much of the disorder could have been avoided.
How the Words Taken Down Preemptively Moderate Debate and Promote Civility
The mere existence of the rule forbidding unparliamentary language does in fact moderate Members’ speech, even in the absence of words being taken down. In debate, Members will, from time to time, note that they would use stronger or more colorful language, but will refrain for the sake of decorum. For instance, during one debate, a Democrat presumably wished to call the Republicans cowardly, but held his tongue, citing the rule:
They are too something, I will not say what because my words might be taken down, but they will not permit the Democratic plan, which is a straight plan for Medicare to pay for 80 percent of the cost of prescription drugs, to be offered on this floor because they do not have confidence that they could win the debate.[xvi]
As noted previously, it is unparliamentary to accuse another Member, a Senator, or the President of lying. Doubtless, this is because such an accusation is so incendiary and an attack upon a person’s integrity. This prohibition has given rise to all sorts of circumlocutions to question the veracity of one’s opponents without straying from the rules. For instance, during one debate on a constitutional amendment to institute congressional term limits, Representative Ronald Coleman all but said his opponents were lying:
So I expect to see a lot of people voting for that who do not plan on it because otherwise you are going to be—I am not going to use the term or I may get my words taken down—maybe not being totally candid with the voters who sent you here.[xvii]
Circumlocutions such as these presumably fall within the bounds of acceptable behavior. Yet there can be no doubt as to the intent of the Members who make statements like this. They are only nominally refraining from attacking the character or integrity of their opponents; statements like these are back-handed attacks on their colleagues. Although they fall within the bounds of decorum, in the interests of civility, it would be best to avoid such references.
When a Member recognizes they have stepped out of line in debate and graciously concede when a colleague demands that words be taken down, the practice can help restore comity to the body. There is another even rarer example of how the rules of decorum can build up the House. On very rare occasions, you have ironic or joking references to words being taken down. For instance, during March Madness 2017, the House was treated to a humorous exchange between then-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and then-Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, an avid University of Maryland basketball fan:
Mr. McCARTHY. Before I depart, though, I would like, Mr. Speaker, to wish my friend from the other side of the aisle a very happy St. Patrick’s Day. I do apologize. I feel bad, when we look at the basketball round, what happened to Maryland; but if you look at NIT, Cal State Bakersfield is still on the march, so I have another team you can root for.
Mr. HOYER. Mr. Speaker, I ask that the gentleman’s words be taken down. I have never had such a vicious attack made on me.[xviii]
This was not Hoyer’s first basketball-related words-taken-down exchange. In February 1995, during a one-minute speech, he gloated over Maryland’s victory over the University of North Carolina. In a bit of good fun, Representative Mel Watt of North Carolina demanded “that these slanderous words be immediately taken down.”[xix] In these cases, the reference to words being taken down could be taken as a sign that relations between Members are being strengthened, rather than torn down.
Not all ironic references to the words taken down procedure are simply in jest. Hoyer, once again, provides an example. In March 2015, Congress passed the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, which was notable because it solved a thorny issue of how to compensate Medicare providers adequately. For well over a decade, Congress repeatedly adjusted reimbursement rates, rather than rely on the automatic adjustments provided by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997; yet a permanent solution eluded Congress. In 2015, congressional leaders negotiated a deal that secured overwhelming majorities in both parties in both Chambers. During the House debate on the matter, Representative Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas who sponsored the bill, praised the “collaborative” nature of its passage. After he finished his statement, Hoyer rose and said:
Mr. Speaker, as an aside, I was inclined to get up and ask that the gentleman’s words be taken down. Of course, when we do that, we do it in a different context. With those words, we ought to all be happy today. Whether we are for or against, the Congress is working today as the American people would have the Congress work.[xx]
A reference to taking words down in a case like this turns the process on its head: Rather than being a sign of a breach in comity, it is used to praise and honor a colleague, which is an effective way to build working relationships.
Although words are not often taken down in the House, the incidents described here suggest that the procedure is powerful. If the point of the rules of the House are, in part, to provide for the orderly consideration of business, every effort should be made to resolve an incident quickly and amicably. Members have shown plenty of ways that they can resolve issues amicably, such as admonishing their colleagues but not actually demanding that words be taken down or extending sincere apologies for infractions. And certain incidents of words being taken down since the 104th Congress suggest that even particularly bitter debates can indeed be resolved with some degree of comity. Though remaining civil is a challenge, it can be done. With a contentious times before us, let’s see how Members can keep their cool.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.
[i] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 1st sess., 1995, vol. 141, no. 93: H5697. https://www.congress.gov/104/crec/1995/06/08/CREC-1995-06-08-pt1-PgH5696-5.pdf.
[ii] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 2nd sess., 1996, vol. 142, no. 97—pt. 2: H7048: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CREC-1996-06-27/pdf/CREC-1996-06-27-bk2.pdf.
[iii] Bryan B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling, Will Rogers’ World: America’s Foremost Political Humorist Comments on the 20’s and 30’s—and 80’s and 90’s,New York: M. Evans and Company, 1989. Page 49.
[iv] Thomas Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, Washington: U.S. GPO, 1993. Section 17.9-11, page 27. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/SDoc103-8.pdf.
[v] Karen L. Haas, ed., Rules of the House of Representatives, 116th Congress. January 11, 2019. https://rules.house.gov/sites/democrats.rules.house.gov/files/116-1/116-House-Rules-Clerk.pdf. Rule XVII, clause 1(b).
[vi] Charles W. Johnson, John V. Sullivan and Thomas J. Wickham, House Practice: A Guide to the Rules, Precedents, and Procedures of the House, Washington: U.S. GPO, 2017. Page 428. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-HPRACTICE-115/pdf/GPO-HPRACTICE-115.pdf.
[vii] Theoretically, the House may vote to censure a Member for unparliamentary language if the situation warrants it. This is exceptionally rare and never occurred in the period studied, the 104th Congress to the present.
[viii] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 1st sess., 1995, vol. 141, no. 10: H304. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/1995/1/18/house-section/article/h304-1.
[ix] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 2nd sess., 1996, vol. 142, No. 95: H6775. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/1996/6/25/house-section/article/h6767-1.
[x] C-Span, “House Session – June 12, 2019,” C-Span Congressional Chronicle Online, June 12, 2019, incident starts around 1:48:00, Accessed November 8, 2019: https://www.c-span.org/video/?461462-3/house-session.
[xi] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 2nd sess., 1996, vol. 142, No. 11: 15915. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1996-pt11/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1996-pt11.pdf.
[xii] “Nevertheless, if a member finds that it is not the inclination of the House to hear him, and that by conversation or any other noise they endeavor to drown his voice, it is his most prudent way to submit to the pleasure of the House, and sit down; for it scarcely ever happens that they are guilty of this piece of ill manners without sufficient reason, or inattentive to a member who says anything worth their hearing.” (Jefferson’s Manual, section 17.13)
[xiii] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 2nd sess., 1996, vol. 142, No. 11: 15915. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1996-pt11/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1996-pt11.pdf.
[xiv] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 2nd sess., 1996, vol. 142, No. 111: H8522-H8524. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/1996/7/25/house-section/article/h8522-2.
[xv] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 1st sess., 1995, vol. 141, No. 11: H333. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/1995/1/19/house-section/article/h330-2.
[xvi] Cong. Rec., 107th Cong., 2nd sess., 2002, vol. 148, No. 88: H4180. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/2002/6/27/house-section/article/h4166-1.
[xvii] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 1st sess., 1995, vol. 141, No. 58: H3916. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/1995/3/29/house-section/article/h3915-1.
[xviii] Cong. Rec., 115th Cong., 1st sess., 2017, vol. 163, No. 47: H2172. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/2017/3/17/house-section/article/h2169-1.
[xix] Cong. Rec., 104th Cong., 1st sess., 1995, vol. 141, No. 25: H1437. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/1995/2/8/house-section/article/h1436-6.
[xx] Cong. Rec., 114th Cong., 1st sess., 2015, vol. 161, No. 51: H2074-5. https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/2015/3/26/house-section/article/h2045-1.