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“I hold the distinguished gentleman in minimum high regard.” That was the way former Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) would express his deep displeasure and anger at a colleague on the floor of the House. Call it the 1950s equivalent of “You lie!”
Of course, McCormack, who spent 42 years in the House and through 51 years of marriage never missed an evening with his beloved wife, was not a typical Member of Congress. And he left the speakership in the early ’70s amid concerns by his colleagues that he wasn’t tough enough to deal with politics as they got sharper and more partisan.
But McCormack also reflected a prevailing attitude in an era when Congress struggled mightily to maintain its legitimacy and contain its conflicts by setting real standards of decorum–he was an opinion leader who tried to make sure that the bitterness, anger and other emotions that come with real disputes about real issues, with the highest of stakes in the society, stayed focused on the differences over issues and did not degenerate into personal attacks on the character or very legitimacy of the people making contrary arguments.
The rules of both chambers, but especially the House, create serious penalties for those who cast aspersions on the character of their colleagues (or refer directly to the other chamber in derogatory terms). Even Speakers have felt the lash of those penalties, including Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) when he stepped over the line on the floor reacting to Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his colleagues’ use of special orders to hit Democrats and called it “the lowest thing” he had seen in his service in the House.
Of course, any student of Congress knows that McCormack’s approach of exaggerated courtesy was hardly the norm. Congress has had its share of rowdiness, and even eras of serious physical violence, right on the floor or right off it. Brutal canings or duels were confined to the 19th century, but there were physical confrontations of note even in our recent past, if nothing more notable than a wrestling match between Sens. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) and Ralph Yarborough (Texas).
The number of Members who have crossed the lines and said outrageous, stupid or slimy things on the floor, about their colleagues or others, is very large. And the outbreaks in recent decades of political gamesmanship and partisan sparring when presidents have been in the chamber giving State of the Union messages or other addresses are too numerous to recount here. They include times when one side stands up and applauds vigorously while the other sits in stony silence (with many occasions where the side applauding is the opposition, derisively); moments with loud murmuring turning to hissing or even booing; and lots of occasions of Members reading or texting during the speech. Most of those are foolish, often simply sophomoric, usually viewed by the president and his partisans and adversaries alike with equanimity, even if they reflect badly on the dignity of Congress and the maturity of its Members.
Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst was different. It was neither good-natured nor aimed at issue differences. It was a direct attack on the character of the president when he was a guest in the house of the Representatives of the first branch of government. It was not just inappropriate; it was a stain on the House. It did dishonor to Congress, the president and the presidency. Of course, it was only two words–and let’s accept Wilson’s contention that it was simply an unplanned emotional outburst. I will even accept the word of columnist Kathleen Parker, a wonderful writer and straight shooter, that Wilson is a nice guy.
But we know that this is not the first time that Wilson has had an inappropriate emotional outburst that crossed the line. Just watch his 2002 rant on C-SPAN where he repeatedly accused Rep. Bob Filner (D- Calif.) of hating America when Filner said, in effect, that the U.S., in its desire to play both ends against the middle in the Iran-Iraq war, had facilitated Iraq’s development of chemical and biological weapons. Wilson didn’t offer an alternative set of facts or point of view, say that Filner had overstated the case or simply disagree–he repeatedly called his colleague an America-hater. It was not on the House floor and didn’t break any rules, but it showed that Wilson has a bigger problem than the one he displayed last week.
My initial inclination was to drop the issue, thinking that Wilson would be ashamed enough by the reaction to his transgression that it would be enough and would send the appropriate message to everyone that there are still lines of legitimate discourse to be maintained and observed. But as I have watched the dynamic since–Wilson suddenly skyrocketing from an affable backbencher with no legislative footprints to a celebrity, facing not the displeasure of his leaders but their timidity and indeed support under pressure from the rabid elements of their base–I have come to believe that a serious reprimand on the House floor is both appropriate and necessary.
Hundreds of House Members will never be invited on one of the Sunday talk shows; many would seriously consider giving up their firstborn for the chance to get that kind of showcase. Now they have role models in Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Wilson, the legislative equivalents of Ann Coulter, Michael Moore and Glenn Beck–the way to status, recognition and the Holy Grail of national television and talk radio is to say more and more outrageous things.
It is not just that one person, or even a few, cross the line. Many, on both sides of the aisle (remember former Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney?) have done that. But when the consequence is adulation and not the opposite, it moves us toward a new and dangerously dysfunctional discourse.
The framers were anything but shrinking violets when it came to vituperative language and ugly charges. But they did not live in an age of cable news, talk radio and blogs that can mobilize millions and inflame the worst instincts in many. They also set up a deliberative process for Congress, a way to craft broad agreement over difficult and divisive policy decisions for an extended republic. The idea was that lots of debate among people from vastly different regions with vastly different backgrounds, interests and perspectives could lead to the rough consensus necessary to govern.
That deliberative process means vigorous disagreements that can question the very legitimacy of ideas and policies–but not the legitimacy of the people with whom one disagrees. View your adversaries as the enemy and the country itself can be divided into camps. Two words shouted on the House floor do not a villain make. But it is time to start drawing some lines, to show that some limits still apply in a civil society.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.
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