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Has Congress always been this poorly behaved?

Lately, there's been some questionable conduct from members in Congress. Is there still room for decorum on Capitol Hill?
Has Congress always been this poorly behaved?
Posted at 6:52 PM, Jan 26, 2024

From threats of violence to language you probably wouldn't use in front of your mother, there's been an uptick in rowdy behavior from our nation's lawmakers. But is it new?

Earlier this month, Rep. Nancy Mace made headlines when told Hunter Biden, the son of President Biden, that he had no testicles ... but in a more colorful way.

"You are the epitome of White privilege coming into our committee, spitting in our face," said Mace.

In November, Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, a former MMA fighter, challenged Teamsters President Sean O'Brien to a brawl right there in the Senate.

"You wanna do it right now?" asked Mullin.

"I'd love to do it right now," said O'Brien.

"Then stand your butt up then," challenged Mullin before the pair were calmed by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

While Congress hasn't made it to the level of the WWE-style bouts as seen abroad, Congressional Historian Jane Campbell says we have been there before — like in a 1991 budget dispute between then-Congressman John Boehnor and Alaska Rep. Don Young.

"The story is that he then pulled a hunting knife on John Boehner on the floor of the House. Now, interestingly, this was not the first time that he had done this," said Campbell.

Pre-Civil War times were a peak time for battles in Congress, like a 30-member brawl on the House floor in 1858. 

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"People pulled knives and guns and the Congressional record was sort of sanitized, shall we say. They said there was a 'disagreement,' and it only really became clear when Joanne Freeman, who's a historian, found the personal diary of the clerk at the time who wrote the entire story," said Campbell.

Two years prior, Rep. Preston Brooks caned Sen. Charles Sumner inside the Senate chamber, striking him in the head repeatedly.

"Preston Brooks resigned for a while, got reelected, and people sent him canes, they were happy so he reflected his constituents," said Campbell.

Campbell says behavior is often a reflection of the voters and the times. Experts say today is not so different.

"Voters may not like it when politicians go nasty, But when they feel that the other side is a threat, or when they feel that their opponents are not just somebody they respectfully again disagree with, but somebody that is in fact dangerous for the country, then maybe they're going to want somebody who they see as a street fighter," said American University Professor of political extremism Thomas Zeitzoff.

Zeitzoff says there are rewards for the tough language.

"It gets attention, gets clicks, gets likes. These are important on social media, it's important for fundraising," he explained.

It's a topic he explores from an international lens in his book "Nasty Politics," and says that while it may seem like mere words, he's seen how insults can be the first step to more extreme behavior, especially when followed by conspiracy theories or calls to action.

"I think the concerning thing here, and this is for people who care about U.S. democracy, is a lot of times this uptick in nasty politics is a leading indicator of democratic erosion or, you know, outright threats to democracy," he warned. "I don't think we're at a place where we're towards a civil war. But between civil war, violence and — I don't know, Scandinavian democratic stability — there's a lot of stuff, and a lot of different kinds of violence in between," he added.

There are rules regarding behavior: Rule No. 1 of the House Code of Conduct says: "A Member ... of the House shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House."

Campbell says that's true for the vast majority of the more than 500 members of Congress, who work quietly and on a bipartisan level to get things done.

But she adds the ultimate arbiter of change is the voter.

"Ultimately the enforcer of rules, etiquette and decorum are the voters, and if you really want to look at what controls the behavior in Congress, it is their ability to get reelected," said Campbell.

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