Are There Words You Can’t Say on the House Floor?

There are some guidelines, but they’re not always clear.

Those were the days: Members fought with anything they could grab in a 1798 fight on the House floor.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Feb. 11, 2014, 4:26 p.m.

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.”

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