WASHINGTON – In 1856 a House member from South Carolina took his cane to an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, bloodying the Senate floor and leaving the man near death. Capitol attacks these days are not as dramatic, but lawmakers from both parties lament what has become another low point in political civility.
In the latest episode, Vice President Dick Cheney (search) used an obscenity beginning with "F" in an exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy (search), D-Vt., on the Senate floor where members had gathered for a group photo. "I was kind of shocked to hear that kind of language on the floor," Leahy said of the incident this week.
Maybe he shouldn't have been. Just days before, Senate Judiciary Committee Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had referred to a proposal by Leahy to subpoena Justice Department memos on prisoner interrogation (search) as a "dumb-ass" idea.
Cheney, interviewed by Fox News Friday, said he had no regrets about his remarks to Leahy and "I felt better after I said it." He added, "A lot of my colleagues felt what I said badly needed to be said."
The occasional obscenities in a body where "my good friend" is the usual form of address are indicative of what has become a poisonous atmosphere in Congress this year. Tempers have been shortened by the war in Iraq and an election campaign in which Democrats, hoping to capture the White House and Congress, are on the offensive.
"It's as bad as I've seen it in my 10 years in Congress," said Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, a moderate Republican who has led efforts to make the House a more civil place. LaHood has helped organize a bipartisan retreat at the start of every session so lawmakers can get to know each other better, but he has concluded that "the will of the membership is not there to do it next year."
LaHood said things started going downhill a year ago, when a slew of Democratic presidential candidates began criticizing President Bush.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland dated the lack of comity back to 1978, when Republican Newt Gingrich came to Congress with his confrontational agenda. He said things have gotten worse recently because of unfair treatment by the Republican majority.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi this week sent Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., a proposal on protecting minority rights, whoever is in power. "Too often, incivility and the heavy hand of the majority have substituted for thoughtful debate," she said. There was no immediate response from the speaker.
Pelosi and Hastert rarely confer on policy matters, which is not new to the House. Gingrich, when he was speaker, went for months without speaking to Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.
In the more decorous Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota consult daily. But Frist also recently broke tradition and put cordiality to the test by traveling to South Dakota to campaign for Daschle's rival in the fall elections.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (search) at the University of Pennsylvania, said civility generally tends to break down when the minority feels it is being oppressed by the majority, or in an election season when the House and Senate floors are used for campaigning.
She said this year's increase in tension hasn't matched that of 1995, after the Gingrich-led Republicans took over the House, or of 1998 when impeachment proceedings against President Clinton began.
Also in the past several weeks:
— Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas, who was defeated in the Texas primary, the victim of redistricting engineered by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, filed a complaint against DeLay with the House ethics committee, ending an unofficial truce on one member filing charges against another.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., and Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., squared off at a committee meeting after Kennedy overheard Cunningham make a remark about Chappaquiddick, the Massachusetts island where Kennedy's father Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., drove off a bridge in 1969, drowning a female aide who was in the car. They later apologized to each other.
— Showing that aggressive language isn't always across party lines, DeLay this week went after Senate Republicans who differ with the House on spending levels on a highway bill, saying they were using the bill as a "slush fund to rob other programs."
— House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., who last year called Capitol Police over a dispute with committee Democrats, said on the floor this week that Rep. Pete Stark's 8-year-old son "has a job being a shield for his father." The comment came after Stark, D-Calif., said GOP tax breaks were an "obscenity" his son would have to pay for in the future.