Civil Unrest: The Death of Decorum in Washington?

Has Civility Reached an Historic Low in Congress?

August 11, 2010, 1:38 PM

August 12, 2010 -- There was an extraordinary moment during the final senate debate on Elena Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation. While Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered remarks, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) was gasping, shaking his head, and commenting under his breath. Franken's displeasure with McConnell's speech was so blatant that the Kentucky Republican felt compelled to confront him afterwards.

According to Republican aides who overheard, Republican leader McConnell admonished Senator Franken saying, "this is not Saturday Night Live."

Franken later apologized, but the incident certainly raises the question: is the tradition, and indeed, the rule of decorum dying in Congress?

Remember Senator Carl Levin's generous use of the "s"-word during a Senate Subcommittee on Investigations hearing with Goldman Sachs? Originally reading from an e mail and then questioning Goldman exec Daniel Sparks, the Senator used a word we can't even say on TV (rhymes with witty) 21 times in a single hearing.

Such language is rare in the halls of the Senate, but not unheard of. Back in February, Sen. Jim Bunning decided to hold up action in the chamber, telling frustrated and complaining Democrats: "tough s***."

And back in 2004, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont walked over to the Republican side of the Senate chamber to confront then-Vice President Dick Cheney. The two men got into a confrontation over Leahy's criticisms of the White House's portrayal of Democrats. Cheney famously ended the conversation telling Leahy, "go f*** yourself."

In the House, members have also been seen screaming bloody murder. As the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act sailed towards defeat earlier this summer, Rep. Anthony Weiner erupted in a stunning outburst directed at Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).

Rep. Patrick Kennedy made quite the red-faced splash on the House floor back in March while delivering a blistering and impassioned speech directed at the Obama administration and the media on the subject of Afghanistan.

And one can never forget Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) shouting "you lie" at the President of the United States during his health care address to Congress.

So where has the dignity gone? Seeking to restore it, the bipartisan Civility Project sent letters to every member of Congress and each governor -- 535 in all -- asking them to sign a pledge to be civil. Two months later, only one, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has agreed.

Lanny Davis,, a founding member of the Civility Project and a former White House Counsel to President Bill Clinton, says this symbolizes just how bad it's gotten.

"It is emblematic of the worst, divisive, vitriolic culture," Davis told ABC News. "In the 40 years I have been in Washington, this is the worst."

But is it really that bad? A look back at history proves there have indeed been moments where members acted with less decorum than even Dick Cheney.

According to the office of the House Historian, the first case of violence on the House floor happened when Congress was meeting in Philadelphia in 1798. Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont verbally assaulted and spat on Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut on the House floor. Griswold retaliated by striking Lyon with a cane. Then Lyon found a pair of fireplace tongs and began attacking Griswold.

The next day, the House attempted to censure both members, but both resolutions failed.

In 1838, Congressman William Graves of Kentucky shot and killed Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine in a duel over words spoken during a debate on the House floor.

Perhaps most notoriously, Congressman Preston Brooks in 1856 beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane, right on the Senate floor. Althought the House's attempt to expel Rep. Brooks ultimately failed, he decided to resign his seat anyway.

The caning story is well-known but here's the kicker: Rep. Brooks, the guy with the cane who nearly beat Senator Sumner to death, went on to win his next election.

It seems at least in politics, sometimes incivility pays.