Uncivil Behavior in Congress Does Not Mean Civility Is Dead

A common theme in some science fiction tales, such as Carl Sagan’s Contact, was based on the fearful premise that aliens would gain their first inklings of human society from our radio and television signals leaking out into the cosmos. Whether they caught a glimpse of early news reels of Hitler’s rallies or Ricky and Lucy arguing over burnt toast, the impression uniformly failed to put our best foot forward. Taking a more local view, were one to know nothing of American government beyond CSPAN’s coverage of the House floor, the gab festivals on MSNBC and Fox, or coverage of this summer’s town hall meetings, you’d be tempted to think we were the least civil society imaginable.

The latest incarnation of shouting in the public square came in the form of Representative Alan Grayson (D-Florida). The congressman took time out of his busy day to assemble helpful charts and posters on the House floor informing us that the entire Republican caucus wants all of the sick people in the United States to expire in an expedient fashion to save money. While it falls well short of the fisticuffs which regularly take place in the legislatures of certain Asian and South American nations, the presentation smacked of a lack of class and subtlety.

Still, the entire affair might have passed without notice were it not for the curious response of the chamber’s majority leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved quickly to squelch any calls for an official apology from Grayson, claiming that such scuffling in the mud would represent a “distraction” from the more pressing matters at hand. And an admirable response it would have been, had she not first made the same claim about Joe Wilson’s “you lie” outburst, but then allowed a resolution of censure to move forward.

It hasn’t always been this way in the halls of Congress, though. During the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings, there were actually calls for the indictment of Army legal representative Joseph Nye Welch for saying, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”  Today, such a question would fail to elicit much more than yawns.

And what of the rowdy, disruptive behavior on display at town halls across the nation this summer? They featured crowds packed to the rafters, peppered with accusations of communist tendencies and snarling supporters noshing on the fingers of protestors. But this is also a fairly recent development, and likely not indicative of the nation at large.

I’ve been attending these public forums for many years, and legislators have traditionally had trouble filling a space the size of a high school gymnasium. To be sure, there were heated moments at times, but they frequently dealt with local, personal problems which voters wished to bring to the attention of their representatives.