House is having polite year, insult-wise, according to a new report

One Republican called Democrats “socialist members.” A Democrat compared Republicans to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Another said his opponents “just make up stuff.”

And in the House of Representatives, apparently, this qualifies as a polite year.

That’s the conclusion of a new report that assessed the chamber by an unusual measure: its insults. Researchers looked for instances in which one member formally objected to a slur hurled by another.

They found that this year’s total has fallen far short of the numbers from the 1940s, when members deemed one another nitwits and communists. This year’s number is not even equal to that of 1995, when one Republican likened Democrats to Mephistopheles.

Pessimists saw this as evidence that this Congress is so divided that members don’t even bother with name-calling.

The study’s author reached a more hopeful conclusion.

“Things are working better than you think they are,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She said the data show that Congress’s sense of common purpose, and its respect for its own rituals, survived a turbulent year.

“They’ve gotten this far into this year without the kind of blowups they had on the floor” in the past, Jamieson said. That, she said, suggests that “something’s working. It’s not perfect, but something’s working.”

Normally, congressional debates have a Victorian kind of decorum. Even bitter enemies will refer to one another as “the gentlelady from Maryland,” or “my good friend from Louisiana.” The rules require it. The logic is that lawmakers need constant reminding that their disputes are about policies and are not personal.

In the new study, researchers looked at cases in which politeness failed.

They examined instances, dating to 1935, where one member insulted another’s motives, character, patriotism or looks. The person under attack then asked that the words be “taken down” — to see whether House rules were broken.

This year, it happened when Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said that Republicans, while debating aid to the poor, “just make stuff up.” It happened when Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) referred to Democrats as “socialist members.”

And it happened when Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) referred to a finding by an outside group, Politifact, which labeled Republican assertions about a government “takeover” of health care as the “lie of the year.”

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) stood up to object, saying the implication was that he was a liar. “I ask the gentleman’s words be taken down,” he said.

In these cases, the House then follows an odd ritual. Everything stops, and clerks and lawmakers mill around at the front of the room while deciding whether the words were appropriate.

The delay seems designed to give the insulter time to think things over.

“I [ask] unanimous consent, Mr. Speaker, to withdraw the previous statement,” Blumenauer said. In all three cases this year, that’s how the dispute ended.

But there were only three. One of the year’s most famous insults — when Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) compared Republican tactics on health care to that of Goebbels — was not captured in the study. Nobody requested that his words be taken down.

Jamieson, the study’s author, said the low number was surprising, because insults usually peak at times when one party takes control of the House from the other.

When the Republicans took the House in 1995, there were 17 objections. The highlight was probably when Rep. Martin Hoke (R-Ohio) said Democrats lied so much, “you’d swear it was Mephistopheles himself who was up there speaking.”

This year’s three cases lacked the personal sting of insults from recent Congresses. In 2003, for instance, one lawmaker called another “you little fruitcake.” On one night in 2005, a Republican called a group of Democrats “lap dogs.” A Democrat, Rep. Marion Berry (Ark.), responded by calling a young, red-haired Republican a “Howdy Doody-lookin’ nimrod.”

And they were certainly weak imitations of the epithets from the House’s golden age of insults, in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In 1798, a charge of cowardice led to a fight in which one member attacked another with tongs from the House fireplace. In the 1860s, one member made a crack about another’s hair in an insult-fueled speech, and the two never spoke again.

So why hasn’t 2011 been a banner year for insults?

The reasons probably include the shooting that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) in January, an event that prompted calls for bipartisanship. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has also emphasized civility on the House floor. “We can disagree without being disagreeable,” he said on his first day.

“Speaker Boehner has done a good job, in trying to return the Congress to what we [call] regular order,” which lets both sides get their ideas considered, said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), usually an opponent of Boehner’s.

Lungren thought of another reason: “Mr. Weiner’s no longer here.” Before his career ended after a sex scandal, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was one of the House’s most confrontational voices.

But others said the study indicated something different: a Congress so broken that it has lost its interest in insults. Lawmakers said they saw incivility all around them, in attacks on cable TV and the Internet, in bitter town-hall meetings.

It’s easy to be polite, they said, if you’re not really talking at all.

And Congress’s great tradition of insults can reassert itself at any time, said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). He recalled one debate he was leading this year: The two sides were exchanging views calmly and politely, and Kingston left for a bathroom break.

He came back, and somebody’s words were being taken down.

He remembered thinking: “I’ve been gone five minutes, and this is what happens?”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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