House members are not as uncivil as they seem, study finds

Posted Sept. 28, 2011, at 9:06 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Members of the House of Representatives are still accusing each other of lying, but have generally stopped insulting the intelligence of members of the opposing party.

Those are among the conclusions of a report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The study also said that as rancorously partisan as the House seems, it’s not as uncivil as previous sessions — at least based on a study of name-calling and other insulting language used during floor debates.

Incivility in the chamber isn’t as high as it was in the mid-1990s, according to a report by the center.

But the report does not cover any of the name-calling that occurs outside of the House chamber.

The study tracked what is called the taking-down process, in which one lawmaker demands another retract what he or she considers a deep insult.

According to House rules, “a member should avoid impugning the motives of another member, the Senate or the president, using offensive language, or uttering words that are otherwise deemed unparliamentary.”

The Democratic-controlled House in 2009 voted to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., for shouting “You lie” to President Barack Obama.

“The historical indicators predict a higher number of incidents in which a member impugns the integrity, ideology, or patriotism of those of opposed views than we’ve seen so far,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the report’s author. “This piece of positive news is worth noting. But the warning signs continue to blink.”

The report noted that some of the factors that contributed to the heightened level of incivility in 1995 are present today — like a divided government, a battle over federal spending and a president’s perceived vulnerability.

It says that some situations are likely to produce incivility more than others, including when control of the House changes after the opposing party has held the majority for an extended period, the minority party feels abused and highly charged election-year issues come up for debate.

Incivility was high in 1995, when Republicans, under Newt Gingrich, took over the House after 40 years of Democratic rule, according to the report that examined the congressional record dating back to 1935.

The study found that some forms of attacks do not go out of style, such as one lawmaker accusing another of lying, while other lines of attack have largely fallen out of fashion, such as insulting the intelligence of a member of the opposing party.

“The assertion that another member of those of the other party are clueless, ignorant or stupid was more likely to occur from 1935 to 1941 than in any period since,” says the report.

As toxic as the political discourse may get, no one expects it to get as bad as 1856, when the nation was increasingly riven over slavery. A South Carolina House member, Preston Brooks, entered the Senate chamber and severely beat abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts over the head with a cane.

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