Foul Mouths in Congress? Big [Expletive] Deal

When Linda McMahon, former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, announced her candidacy for the Senate from Connecticut last fall, lots of Washington eyebrows were raised. But her timing was perfect. From Rep. Randy Neugebauer's "baby killer" taunt to House Minority Leader John Boehner's "hell no!" shouts against health-care legislation and Rep. Joe Wilson's call of "you lie!" during a speech by President Obama last fall, the rhetoric in Congress these days feels much more Bret "the Hitman" Hart than, say, the courtly 1960s House Speaker John McCormack, who would utter "I hold the distinguished gentleman in minimum high regard" when he became angry at a colleague.

Such behavior is not unprecedented. Indeed, the recent incidents are mild when compared with Congress's storied history of salty language--and worse.

The incivility on Capitol Hill today is the worst I've seen in decades. And the partisanship that makes people demonize their opponents is dangerous, especially when government power is so vast, when cable news and blogs inflame popular passions and when the reward for rudeness is often an infusion of fresh campaign contributions. But such behavior is not unprecedented. Indeed, the recent incidents are mild when compared with Congress's storied history of salty language--and worse.

1798: In the midst of a dispute on the House floor, Rep. Roger Griswold (Conn.), a Federalist, impugned Republican Rep. Matthew Lyon's Revolutionary War record. Lyon (Vt.) spit in Griswold's face. Two weeks later, Griswold hit Lyon with a cane, and Lyon responded by attacking Griswold with a pair of fire tongs.

1837: Rep. Balie Peyton (Tenn.), taking offense at testimony by former federal bank director Reuben M. Whitney before a committee of investigation, shouted, "You shan't say a word while you are in this room; if you do I will put you to death."

1845: As recounted by John Quincy Adams in his diary, Rep. Edward J. Black (D-Ga.) "crossed over from his seat... and, coming within the bar behind [Ohio Whig Rep. Joshua R.] Giddings as he was speaking, made a pass at the back of his head with a cane." Rep. William H. Hammett (D-Miss.) "threw his arms round [Black] and bore him off as he would a woman from a fire."

1856: Furious about attacks against pro-slavery Sen. Andrew Butler (D-S.C.) by abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), Butler's relative, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.), went onto the Senate floor and beat Sumner senseless with his gutta-percha walking cane. When other senators tried to aid Sumner, they were stopped by Rep. Laurence Keitt (D-S.C.), who brandished a pistol to keep them away. Sumner was unable to return to the Senate for more than three years; Brooks survived an expulsion vote in the House, resigned his seat and was reelected to it that November.

1902: In the Senate chamber, Sen. John McLaurin (D) accused his fellow South Carolinian, Sen. Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman (D), of telling a "willful, malicious and deliberate lie." Tillman punched McLaurin in the face.

1964: Positioned outside a committee room, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was trying to dissuade his arriving colleagues from forming a quorum to consider the nomination of LeRoy Collins to head the Community Relations Service under the new Civil Rights Act. When pro-civil rights Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.) showed up, the two ended up in a wrestling match.

1970: Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), fervently opposed to the Vietnam War, took to the Senate floor and, to the gasps of colleagues and people in the galleries, declared: "This chamber reeks of blood."

1985: After a disputed 1984 election in Indiana's 8th Congressional District resulted in a party-line House vote to seat Democrat Frank McCloskey, Rep. Bob McEwen (R-Ohio) lashed out on the floor at Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.). "You know how to win votes the old-fashioned way," he said. "You steal them." Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said the Democrats were a "leadership of thugs." Republicans marched en masse in protest out of the House chamber, the first time that had happened in 95 years.

2003: In protest over the lack of notice about a markup of a pension bill, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee left the hearing room. The one Democrat left behind to make sure nothing untoward happened, Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.), was told to "shut up" by Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.). "You think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp?" Stark replied. "Come on. Come over here and make me, I dare you. You little fruitcake."

2004: Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing in the Senate chamber in his capacity as president of the Senate, became involved in a discussion with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) about Cheney's ties to his old firm, Halliburton. The conversation ended with Cheney telling Leahy to "[expletive] yourself." The veep's spokesman, Kevin Kellems, later acknowledged that there had been a "frank exchange of views."

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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