Basic Training: Decorum & Civility in the House
The Origins of the Decorum Rules
The Rules of the House give the Speaker broad authority to maintain decorum in the House. Much of this authority is codified in Rule XVII, but is also contained in Jefferson’s Manual, which is incorporated by reference into the Rules of the House. The Rules, when combined with the principles described in Jefferson’s Manual and the precedents of the House form the basis of the decorum rules in the House. The intent is to provide an atmosphere where the Members of the House debate the legislative issues before them, rather than engaging in “personality” by characterizing the actions of another Member or showing disrespect to the institution.
Dress and Comportment
Members are required to dress appropriately, which has traditionally been considered to include a coat and tie for male Members and appropriate business attire for female Members. Members should not wear overcoats or hats on the floor while the House is in session. No eating, drinking, or smoking is permitted, and the use of personal electronic equipment, including cellular phones and laptop computers, is banned on the floor of the House. The rule does permit the use of “unobtrusive handheld electronic devices” such as a Blackberry.
A Member must stand while speaking and address the Chair in their remarks (Mister or Madam Speaker; Mister or Madam Chairman). They must also refrain from addressing other Members, the President, the gallery, or the television viewing audience.
Members are required to avoid walking between the Chair and any Member addressing the House and Members should not walk through the well of the House when Members are speaking.
Although Members are permitted to use exhibits such as charts during debate, exhibits which demean the House or a Member of the House, or otherwise violate the rules of decorum are prohibited. Any Member may object to the use of an exhibit, and the Speaker may submit the question of the propriety of the exhibit to the House without a ruling, requiring that the House vote on whether or not the exhibit should be permitted. Similarly, Members are prohibited from wearing badges to convey political messages while speaking.
A Member should avoid impugning the motives of another Member, the Senate or the President, using offensive language, or uttering words that are otherwise deemed unparliamentary. These actions are strictly against House Rules and are subject to a demand that the words be taken down. A demand that the Member’s words be taken down results in the clerk reporting the words and the chair ruling on the propriety of the words. (If the demand is made in the Committee of the Whole, the Committee rises and reports them to the House where the Chair rules on their propriety).
The offending Member may obtain unanimous consent to withdraw the inappropriate words or the demand may be withdrawn. Following such a withdrawal, the Member proceeds in order. However, if the Member’s words are ruled out of order, they may be stricken from the Congressional Record by motion or unanimous consent, and the Member will not be allowed to speak again on that day except by motion or unanimous consent.
References to the Senate or Executive Branch
Until the 109th Congress, it was not in order to make certain references to the Senate or individual senators. However, at the beginning of that Congress, the House removed the prohibition on making references to the Senate, leaving only the requirement that debate be confined to the question under debate and avoid “personality.” The precedents of the House allow a wide latitude in criticism of the President, other executive officials, and the government itself. However, it is not permissible to use language that is personally offensive to the President, such as referring to him as a “hypocrite” or a “liar.” Similarly, it is not in order to refer to the President as “intellectually dishonest” or an action taken by the President as “cowardly.” References to the Vice President, in spite of his role as President of the Senate, are measured against the standard used for the President rather than prior standards used to govern the Senate.
Categories of Unparliamentary Speech
- Defaming or degrading the House
- Criticism of the Speaker’s personal conduct
- Impugning the motives of another Member
- Charging falsehood or deception
- Claiming lack of intelligence or knowledge
- References to race, creed, or prejudice
- Charges related to loyalty or patriotism