When Rep. Jim McGovern was quoted last week suggesting that House Republicans were engaged in a bit of "ass-covering" on the debt ceiling, his off-the-cuff remark in a hallway raised eyebrows.
"People were teasing him," one senior House aide said. "They were saying he couldn't have gotten away with that language on the House floor."
But is that true? Would McGovern be courting trouble if he said "ass-covering" on the House floor, in full C-SPAN glory? Who is it who decides what lawmakers can't say?
As it turns out, officials say there is no list of "taboo words" carved in granite to govern floor proceedings, no modern parallel to the 1970s' "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" monologue by comedian George Carlin.
But there is a tome called House Practice: A Guide to the Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House, which lends at least a fuzzy level of direction to what is forbidden.
Listed among behavior that could lead to disciplinary action is "vulgarity or profanity in debate," along with "outbursts following the expiration of time for debate" and critical references to fellow House members.
Yet that same section also cautions that the context of a debate must be considered, as well as the present-day meaning of language. "Thus the word "˜damn' has been ruled out of order," advises the guide, "whereas "˜damnable' has been permitted."
In practice, the Office of the Parliamentarian, currently headed by Thomas Wickham Jr., advises the speaker or whoever is presiding over the chamber when language has gone too far. But Wickham, in keeping with tradition, declined to discuss how his office rules on language. Lawmakers who take things too far can be censured or otherwise disciplined, or simply asked to apologize, through what's called a "taking down" process.
Of course, vulgarities — and their repercussions — have been studied on occasion, specifically by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, in reports on congressional civility that date from the 1990s. One such study in 1999 attempted to chart instances of "incivility," from 1935 to 1998. Among the findings:
- 92 "name-calling" nouns, "such as weirdo, traitor, crackpot, and bitch."
- 71 "aspersion" words that insult but do not call names, "such as irrational, reckless, and un-American."
- 58 synonyms for lying, or a person who lies, "such as hoax, farce, and prevaricate."
- 19 pejorative words used to denigrate someone else's speech, "such as bellyache, doublespeak, and gibberish."
- 11 "taboo words" considered vulgar, "such as damn, shit, and hell."
A 2011 version of the report didn't go into similar detail, but did offer some other interesting findings. For instance, it found that attacks — including mischaracterizing the ideology and motives of others — were more strident and vitriolic in earlier sessions of Congress than those in the most recent decade. It also found that some lines of attack have largely fallen out of fashion, such as insulting the intelligence of an opponent or the opposing party.
Indeed, congressional floor behavior has not always been so structured. Early on, Senate and House rules guaranteed almost total freedom from restraint, and physical violence was not uncommon.
For instance, after prayers one morning in 1798, Federalist Roger Griswold of Connecticut walked up to the desk of Republican Matthew Lyon of Vermont and struck him with "a large yellow hickory cane." The two men proceeded to wrestle and assault each other "to the delight of their colleagues," according to a 2006 history by Robert V. Remini, the late House historian and author.
Through the decades of battling over slavery and national disunion, savage personal insults and despicable gestures often added to the flavor of House floor action. But things had calmed down by the 1970s, according to a written account by former House Parliamentarian William Holmes Brown in 1996, and rules were changed to make debate more structured.
Even so, a modern comparison by Annenberg of the level of vulgarity in the U.S. House and the British House of Commons from 1986 to 1996 suggested that the U.S. legislature was still more vulgar.
Not that it is always easy to tell. Tracking how Congress uses language can be difficult, because lawmakers can ask to withdraw or modify what they say. Indeed, before the 104th Congress, the Congressional Record did not faithfully reflect what had happened on the House floor.
For example, two lawmakers got into a shouting match during the debate over the Family Planning Amendments Act in 1993. As Annenberg notes, one yelled at the other, who was trying to interrupt him, "You had better not do that, ma'am. You will regret that as long as you live. Who do you think you are?"
But what appeared in the record was, "I will say to the gentlelady, for whom I have the greatest respect, I would hope that she or any other Member not try to cut off another Member when a serious matter like this is to be resolved here in the proper House."