The House is more courteous than you might imagine

Debate on the House floor heated up Tuesday over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments regarding recent controversial tweets by President Donald Trump. During consideration of a Democratic resolution to condemn the President’s tweets as racist, Speaker Pelosi said on the House Floor, “Every single Member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the President’s racist tweets. To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office” (Congressional Record 16 July 2019, H5851-H5852).

This led Georgia Republican Doug Collins to invoke the procedural step of “words taken down,” against Speaker Pelosi for violation of a House rule in which “[p]ersonal abuse, innuendo, or ridicule of the President is not permitted” and whereby “[r]eferences to racial or other discrimination on the part of the President are not in order” (Jefferson’s Manual, Sec. 370, pp. 187-190). The words-taken-down process, nicely summarized by Casey Burgat, is a formal manner by which members can hold each other to standards of decorum in debate. The House parliamentarian then sided with Representative Collins. What followed was a tense and procedurally intricate stand-off, with moments of unprecedented melodrama such as when the presiding officer Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) abandoned the chair. Then, however, the House voted in a 190-232 party-line vote to reject the motion to strike the Speaker’s remarks and no penalty was delivered. Despite the precedent in House Rules prohibiting such speech, the House Democratic majority stood behind the Speaker in rejecting the Republican Collins’s motion.

The tensions expressed in this House interchange, and the first demand in 35 years that the Speaker of the House’s words be taken down, may seem a sign of the broader coarseness present in American politics these days. Yet a closer examination of the history of the words-taken-down” rule suggests a more complicated reality. On the one hand, courtesy in the House is healthier than we usually give Congress credit for. On the other hand, the episode hints at a possible erosion of norms in the Congress that coincides with the Trump presidency.

In a forthcoming book on congressional norms I am writing, I argue that, despite what we may think about congressional dysfunction and partisan bickering, the norm of courtesy is surprisingly alive and relatively well in the modern Congress. This is echoed in interviews with current and former members and staff who often point out that, despite what makes news headlines, members generally treat each other with courtesy on and off the floor. Events on Tuesday were indeed dramatic and they made for riveting moments on C-SPAN. But they were dramatic and riveting because they were so unusual — exceptions that prove the rule.

Further evidence of the norm of courtesy comes across in analysis of the words taken down process. I have gathered data on every instance in which the words taken down process was invoked for the 80th through the 112th Congresses, including the identity of both the accused and the accuser, as well as the resolution of each case. If we allow calls for words to be taken down to serve as a measure of breaches of the norm of courtesy, we can arrive at some striking findings regarding the resilience of this norm over time.

In the data we see a total of 251 demands for words taken down during the 80th through the 112th Congresses; an average of 7.67 cases per Congress and a range from a low of zero cases in the 90th Congress to 28 in the 104th. During this period, there were a total of 14,574 individual congressional terms served and yet only 231 individual members whose words were ever so challenged, for a total rate of 1.59% of members among all members who ever served in each of the 33 Congresses. This suggests that such breaches of the norm of courtesy in the House of Representatives are extremely rare.

The pattern of outcomes when words taken down is evoked is also revealing for what it implies about the respect for the courtesy norm in the House. Most notably, in the 251 instances of breaches of decorum there were only six cases where the full formal sanction of a member being seated for the remainder of the legislative day was imposed – in other words, based on this data there is only a 2.39% chance (6 out of 251) that a member accused of violating the rules of decorum would receive a full penalty. Given the low likelihood that a full sanction would ever be imposed on members for violating the decorum rules, it can be surmised that members generally accept and adhere to norms of courtesy. Consistent with qualitative findings in interviews, members are, in fact, generally courteous toward one another.

The data support another notable insight. Inter-party norm violations – those cases where a demand for words taken down is made by a member of the other party – account for 87.25% (219 out of 251) of all cases in the 80th through 112th Congresses. Only 32 (12.75%) are within the same party (see Figure 1 above). Within that latter number 21 were by unique individual accusers by Congress. The low number of intra-party accusations suggests that partisans have always been more courteous to their own.

Although courtesy seems to be an enduring norm in the House, the events on Tuesday point to important questions about the erosion of this norm during Trump’s presidency. While an inter-party demand that words be taken down is not unusual, the subsequent vote to overrule the charge and allow Speaker Pelosi’s words to stand, alters the precedent in the House. That is, because in this case a member was permitted to refer to the president a racist, members may now draw from this new precedent in their words about the president on the floor. The precedent was changed, and thereby the norm of courtesy was weakened. In this regard, rules and a norm that originates with Thomas Jefferson, whose Manual guides conduct of the House, have been altered by events of the Trump presidency.

Among the takeaways we can learn from placing this episode in context, therefore, are that courtesy largely prevails in the House of Representatives, despite appearances; discourtesy is mainly a partisan affair; and that the norm of courtesy in the House of Representatives has slightly eroded as a result of debate over Trump tweets. The long-standing norm of courtesy was struck a blow this week, but whether things will continue to get worse remains to be seen.

Brian Alexander, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. He served as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow (2015-2016) in the office of U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI). Help contribute to his forthcoming book, A Social Theory of Congress: Legislative Norms in the Twenty-First Century (Lexington Books), by participating in his survey of congressional norms.

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Topics: Legislative Procedure