Skip to main content
NICD News

Partisan Wars of Words Escalate as Lawmakers See Rewards for Bad Behavior

By November 19, 2021December 6th, 2021No Comments

Rep. Paul Gosar attends a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on May 12, in Washington.(JONATHAN ERNST-POOL/GETTY IMAGES)

In-your-face behavior by lawmakers of late is being rewarded by constituents who see it as ‘a badge of honor’ to aggravate those perceived as political opponents.

Rep. William Stanbery of Ohio had gone too far, his colleagues determined in 1832. So egregious was Stanbery’s misconduct that he became the first member of the House of Representatives to be formally censured, and his colleagues delivered their disapproval by a more than 2-1 vote margin. His crime? Stanbery insulted then-House Speaker Andrew Stevenson that his eye might be “too frequently turned from the chair you occupy towards the White House.”

Throughout the 19th century and as recently as 1921, overwhelming majorities in the House voted to censure colleagues for “unparliamentary language.” That included saying something mean or accusatory to another member during debate, referring to Reconstruction legislation as a “monstrosity,” or – in the case of Rep. Thomas Blanton, Texas Democrat, inserting into the Congressional Record papers that recounted a salty-worded conversation (“vile” and “disgusting,” his accusers said) between a union and non-union printer at the Government Printing Office. After being censured, 293-0, Blanton fainted, hitting his head on the marble floor, before recovering and walking tearfully back to his office.

Much has changed since then on Capitol Hill, as technology, partisan politics and a race-to-the-bottom approach to public discourse has turned the august institution of the House into a verbal boxing ring. Congressional experts and some members fear it could turn to actual violence – if not by lawmakers themselves, then by followers egged on by their rhetoric.

The rhetorical battle on the Hill – coming after an actual violent clash during the insurrection attempt on Jan. 6 – is "very serious and, unfortunately, I think the deepest sources of it are long-lasting and systemic."

Keith Allred executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse

“We’ve had nothing like this in recent history. It hasn’t been this bad since the Civil War. That’s an ominous sign. It’s very troubling,” says Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.

The rhetorical battle on the Hill – coming after an actual violent clash during the insurrection attempt on Jan. 6 – is “very serious and, unfortunately, I think the deepest sources of it are long-lasting and systemic,” says Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Deeper ideological and social differences have grown since the late 1970s, and the parties increasingly are playing to their respective bases, says Allred, who taught negotiation and conflict resolution at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Read more on U.S. News & World Report