Civility in the U.S. Congress

The proceedings of the House and Senate are often thick with rules and complex methodology. Among these rules one finds the requirement for civility in the overall decorum of Congressional debate and discussion. The demand for civility ranges from a casual, off-the-cuff remark causing slight offense to formal committee hearings ordered on the basis of allegations levied in response to perceived heinous behavior. Since 1979, C-SPAN cameras have revolutionized the way we capture the civility, or lack thereof, of Congressional members. While the arcane practice of striking a member’s words from the written Congressional Record still exists, constant video recording from a private third party like C-SPAN maintains an archive of all that has been said for the last thirty-four years in the House and later in the Senate.

Civility in Congress is a relatively simple exercise. Formal civility exercises are a step-by-step process in which a member of the House requests that the words of another member be taken out of the record on the basis of a perceived violation of the civil decorum. At that time, the speaking member must suspend their current speech and be seated while the ruling on civility is levied. Once the stenographer transcribes his/her notes, the clerk reads back the comments in question of the speaking member. Then, the speaker makes a decisive ruling as to whether or not the comments in question are deemed inappropriate and, more importantly, a formal violation of House rules. If so, the words are stricken from the written record and the speaking member is suspended from speaking for the remainder of the day (though this caveat is generally overlooked). The reason this practice is considered outdated is because with C-SPAN cameras recording the entirety of Congressional proceedings unedited nothing is ever truly removed. It is the steadfast policy of C-SPAN never to edit the content of its tapes. In the event words are stricken from the Congressional Record, the printed version will show three asterisks (***) or ellipses (…) where the comments deemed a violation would have appeared.

The measure of civility in Congress is traced to the number of times words are requested to be taken down. A request for the record to be edited is an indicator of a speech going too far in the eyes of the offended party and often the Congressional body at-large in the event of a successful request. These requests are the result of a member or members perceiving the comments of the speaking member to be scathing and offensive against a member, members, a party, the president, etc. In fact, one third of remarks that are called into question are those directed towards members of the opposing party. Claims of uncivil conduct often increase in the event of the House majority switching from one party to another (as in the case of 2007 when the Democrats reassumed majority control) simply because the formerly minority party is now afforded the benefit of more power and can be far more critical against the other party and its figureheads like those in the position of Speaker of the House and President. Just before the Republican takeover in 1995, remarks made against specific members in the other party hit an all-time high of 70% of all comments in two Congresses. Without over-generalizing, one could view this 70% as a key reason voters ousted the Democrats from majority rule. People lose faith in Congress when all they see is petty bickering and politically motivated insults. When the Democrats reassumed control of the House in 2007, questions of civility saw an uptick uncharacteristic of Republican rule from ’95 to ’06.

The Senate operates under its own unique rules of civility. For example, Senators in the course of debate and discussion are not to directly address another Senator. They are to speak to and through the chair and addressing another Senator must be done in third person. Many of the governing rules of the Senate require that civil respect be afforded to all Senators in the course of discussion. Rule XIX of the Rules of the Senate controlled by the Committee on Rules & Administration refers to the proper method of debate. Broken into eight sections, Rule XIX states that no member shall interrupt another, members must rise and wait for recognition to speak, no member should “impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator,” members “shall not refer offensively to any State of the Union,” etc.1 The most extreme examples of questionable civility are tried in formal ethics cases. These are among the most uncomfortable and damaging of occurrences in Congress. Continuing on, we will explore three examples of C-SPAN footage that display three important concepts in the questioning of civility in Congressional proceedings: comments challenged and stricken from the record in the House, comments stricken from the record in the Senate by choice, and details outlining a formal ethics hearing.

The following is an example of comments stricken from the record in the House of Representatives on March 7, 2012 (note the silence between 1:16 and 18:50):

In this clip, Representative Barney Franks is quoted as saying, “Madame Speaker, I yield myself thirty seconds to say I have never seen truth stood on its head more rapidly than by my colleague from Texas. He accused us of being too concerned about credit, and said ‘I and my friends,’ well I’m proud to say that the Republican member from Arizona, Mr. [David] Schweikert, is someone I consider a friend, and that’s one of the people from whom the credit was stolen. This notion that ‘who cares about the credit,’ if that were honestly what the Republican leadership believed, why did they take the credit from Mr. Schweikert and Mr. [Jim] Himes, and give it to Mr. [Ben] Quayle? It is they who engage in this credit grabbing!” Immediately following Mr. Franks comments, there was a call to strike his comments from the record. After consideration, the comments were stricken from the Congressional Record on the grounds that they “constitute[d] a personality directed toward an individual member.” From then forward business as usual resumed. As is the norm, Representative Franks was not removed from the remainder of daily business, though the rules of civility allow for his expulsion for the day. This clip illustrates the level of seriousness afforded to any perceived offense as well as the amount of time required to rectify the type of offensive behavior. The comments delivered by Mr. Franks are far from the most vitriolic delivered over the course of Congressional business in American history, but it is afforded the same attention and dedication as any other move the strike from the record.

In the following clip, Senator Jon Kyl makes erroneous comments in reference to Planned Parenthood on April 8, 2011:

Senator Jon Kyl, in the midst of a government budget debate, talks about progress being halted by Democrats because the proposed legislation does not have a provision to support Planned Parenthood. While speaking, he comments that Planned Parenthood derives “well over 90%” of its business by administering abortions. During the course of this debate, Senator Kyl’s comments were not called into question. However, he later had his comments changed in the Congressional Record to say “If you want an abortion you go to Planned Parenthood and that is what Planned Parenthood does.” Due to Mr. Kyl’s personal perception that his comments would be seen as offensive and wrong, he voluntarily struck his own comments from the record and supplemented the record with another version of his statement. Whatever his intentions, Senator Kyl was aware of a potentially perceived lapse in civil decorum and chose to strike his comments for the preservation of his reputation.

In this final clip, Congressman and former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel is brought up on charges of tax and financial disclosure violations:

The Adjudicatory Subcommittee of the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee held the ethics inquiry. Rangel was formally accused of improperly soliciting donations for the Rangel Public Policy Center, accepting donations from people with business interests before the House Ways and Means Committee, using a rent-controlled apartment in New York as a political office, and not paying taxes on rental income from property owned in the Dominican Republic. Rangel was later convicted of eleven counts of ethics violations. This clip is important because it shows where serious lapses in civility and ethics can lead. Breaching the divide between questions of civility to formal unethical offenses is a rare occurrence with harsh penalties.

Congressional civility is a point of pride for many serving in the U.S. Congress. However, from time to time civil behavior is lost in a passionate speech or a scathing remark. Formal standards of decorum are a strong necessity for the progression of everyday business and our current Congress could benefit by reenergizing these principles. Uncivil behavior has ranged from hurtful words to literal canings and fist fights in our Congress’s 224 year history with responses running the gamut from a simple call to strike to a formal hearing hoping to expel treacherous members. Above all, it is important for all to know that in the course of congressional business, civility shall reign supreme.


1. How Congress Works. Rules of the Senate: Debate.