House Rules on Decorum and Debate: Are there Words You Can Never Say on the Floor?

Apropos nothing in particular, here is a recent National Journal article discussing whether the House categorically forbids the use of certain vulgar or profane words in the course of debate. House Rule XVII(1)(b) simply states that “[r]emarks in debate (which may include references to the Senate or its Members) shall be confined to the question under debate, avoiding personality.” The Parliamentarian’s Note to this section, though, explains that “Members should refrain from using profanity or vulgarity in debate,” citing seven separate rulings from 1991 to 2004.

The short answer seems to be that there isn’t a George Carlin type list of words that cannot be uttered on the House floor, but there are many more than seven words that are frowned on, particularly if directed at the president, a senator or another member of the House.

The rules of decorum are enforced by the presiding officer. As former House Parliamentarian Charlie Johnson (in a book co-authored by William McKay, the former Clerk of the House of Commons) explains, however, the presiding officer typically will not act unless a point of order is raised from the floor. See Parliament and Congress 189 (“Because the person occupying the Chair is not a full-time non-partisan presiding officer, but rather is a Member of the Majority party selected by the Speaker to perform a non-partisan role for a temporary period . . ., the occupants of the Chair are understandably more reluctant to render rulings on their own initiative.”). Even the former prohibition against references to the Senate or individual senators, founded on Jefferson’s observation that “it is the duty particularly of the Speaker to interfere immediately, and not to permit expressions to go unnoticed which may give a ground of complaint to the other House,” was liberalized by a rules change in the 109th Congress. As Johnson and McKay note, “[t]his rules change instantly overrode two centuries of precedent based on the standard stated in Jefferson’s Manual, and relieved the Chair of the constant responsibility to admonish Members against political criticisms of the Senate or individual Senators.” Id. at 190.

For those interested in a comparison to Westminster (as Professor Magliocca might be), the substantive rules of decorum appear similar, but the Speaker of the House of Commons takes a more active role in enforcement. This, Johnson and McKay explain, is due to “the credibility and traditional stature of a truly non-partisan Speaker and panel of three Deputies who eschew all political activity in the Chair [which allows] them to take initiatives to preserve to preserve order, [which actions] are not subject to challenge by appeal.” Id. at 192.

The National Journal article notes two studies by the Annenberg Public Policy Center regarding civility in Congress. One report discusses breaches of decorum and various categories of offending words such as “name-calling,” “aspersion,” accusations of mendacity and “taboo words” considered vulgar (the report identifies 11 such words that have been officially found to be taboo). Perhaps reflecting the procedural differences mentioned above, the Annenberg Center also found that the U.S. House is more vulgar than the House of Commons (USA!, USA!).

The National Journal author sought comment from Tom Wickham, the current House Parliamentarian, who is responsible for advising the presiding officer on these delicate issues. Unfortunately, “Wickham, in keeping with tradition, declined to discuss how his office rules on language.” Probably a wiser choice than unleashing a string of obscenities on the inquiring reporter, but still . . .