Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week did what Democrats and Republicans do a lot these days. They argued about the economy. And seeking to get the most publicity for their respective positions, they did it in front of reporters.
“Cantor,” Senator Harry Reid told a group of journalists with their recorders in his face, “wants to not do a bill [in order] to make the economy worse, because he feels that’s better for them.” Cantor denied the charge, made over a disagreement on transportation spending, and Speaker John Boehner jumped to his colleague’s defense. Reid, one Boehner aide said, was becoming known for espousing “bulls--t.”
In every way it was a dispute that is common today, including how it ended. Unsubstantiated accusation, a character-attacking response, and further division on an important issue. After the episode, aides traded more barbs by email and on the phone about their respective bosses.
Much ink has been spilled on the state of congressional decorum. Tempers have never been higher, journalists report, only to be confronted with some examples when tempers were, indeed, higher, such as before the Civil War, or when Newt Gingrich’s majority in the House of Representatives routinely targeted individual Democrats rather than just their ideas.
But some congressional scholars say the incivility may be getting worse over time, reflecting changes in society and broader social decorum. The rise in ad hominem attacks, which malign someone’s character, has been the most striking. “Rather than object to insults, members of Congress are more likely to return them in kind, and then it escalates,” says congressional historian Ilona Nickels. “It’s probably an effect of society at large; we’re all more accepting of coarseness.”
The childishness can be surprising. In early April, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) fired off a tweet calling President Obama “stupid” on matters of constitutional law. Rather than let the accusation be covered up by other tweets and quotes, Obama surrogate David Axelrod fanned the flames. “I think a 6-year-old hijacked your account and is sending out foolish tweets just to embarrass you!” he wrote to Grassley.
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) has found himself in hot water several times over blanket accusations and name-calling. In April he declared that he knew of “78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that [sic] are members of the Communist Party.” When urged to name names, he declined. Democrats have been on the firing end as well. Anticipating the fall debate over spending cuts, tax rates, and the debt ceiling, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Boehner of staking out a position that was “immature and irresponsible.”
While the trend of name-calling and personal attacks isn’t new, it’s gotten worse, says Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. There have been periods of dispute before, including between Reid and former House Majority Leader Bill Frist, but rarely as biting or prolonged. “It’s been a trend over the past 20 years,” Ornstein says. “We used to see that very rarely. Now it’s not so rare.”
The American people, it appears, aren’t amused by the decline in civility and decorum. A 2010 study from the Allegheny College Center for Political Participation found that 95 percent of Americans thought civility was important for governing, and more than 50 percent thought that civility has declined since Obama took office in 2009. A study on values from the Pew Research Center this month might explain why. The gap between Republicans and Democrats on major issues, from the environment to national security and immigration, has risen from 10 percent to 18 percent in the last two decades.
Capitol Hill is the epicenter of that widening divide. “The people we elect are representative of what we think, so that divide is a reflection of us,” says Nickels. But some lawmakers still think that despite heated American attitudes, the seat of power should, and can, rise above.
Last fall, as both chambers prepared to pass a hard-fought and deeply negotiated agreement to raise the nation’s debt limit, Joe Biden made a surprise trip to the House floor to accompany then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to cast her vote. While on the floor, Biden was seen hugging Rep. Michele Bachmann, one of the chamber’s most conservative members and, at the time, a candidate for Biden’s boss’s job.
Quizzed by Newsweek after the encounter, Biden, a longtime senator, cut through the name-calling and coarseness on the Hill. “You know,” he said, “the thing that sometimes gets lost in this place—maybe I spent too much time in the Senate—is there is a basic humanity here, man. It matters between people. I know that sounds corny.”
It did, a bit. But the vice president had evidence to back it up. As aides tried to brush him aside and into his limousine, Biden lingered to shine some positive light on the branch of government where he spent 36 years.
“I tell ya what,” he went on. “One of the most emotional moments I saw was when Hubert Humphrey was dying of cancer. He made his last appearance on the floor and he could hardly walk. He walked into the well [of the Senate] and Barry Goldwater got out of his seat and they both embraced each other for a good three minutes, crying. These were arch- arch- arch-ideological enemies. Listen man, there’s still a lot of humanity left here.”