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.