‘Ongoing attack’: Heckling of Biden’s State of the Union speech new normal for Republicans
Washington: The House floor has been no stranger to rowdy spectacle in 2023, but the eruptions of Republican vitriol against President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address Tuesday night underscored a new and notably coarse normal in Congress, where members of the GOP majority tossed aside rules of decorum and turned the annual speech into a showcase for partisan hostility.
The raucous peals of “liar,” “that’s not true” and at least one expletive lobbed at Biden during his 73-minute address dwarfed outbursts during previous such speeches, most of which have been interrupted by a single disturbance, if at all.
Representative Majorie Taylor Greene listens and reacts as President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington.Credit:AP
The display — captured in images of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, her mouth wide-open as she booed and gave a thumbs-down to the president — reflected the ethos that has come to define the Republican-led House, where an emboldened right wing that styles itself after former President Donald Trump is unapologetic about its antipathy for Biden and eager to show it in attention-grabbing ways.
“If the American people had been on that House floor listening to that speech, it would have been a lot worse names than I called him,” said Greene, who rose to yell “liar” at Biden repeatedly after he noted that some Republicans favoured a plan that could phase out Social Security. Asked whether she was worried about being rebuked for her antics, she added: “Not one single bit. I have the speaker’s support, and he has mine.”
The cat callers heckled with impunity, despite a private warning from McCarthy before the speech to be on good behaviour and his public promises that the House would avoid “childish games” during the address. It was the latest example of the speaker’s struggles to control his unruly rank and file.
A vocal subset of ultraconservative Republicans has exacted steep concessions from McCarthy in exchange for supporting his bid for the speakership — and he has demonstrated repeatedly that he is willing to cater to their whims to placate his party’s base.
Such members “are proudly disrupters, and I don’t think McCarthy has a very good way to rein in the behaviour of his rank-and-file members,” said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “So it potentially allows that behaviour to fester and continue, especially if there’s no perceived punishment or cost to doing so.”
Technically speaking, the outbursts most likely violated House rules on decorum, dictating that members wait to be recognised before speaking on the floor and always address their comments to the presiding member “respectfully,” while avoiding any “personality,” or personal criticism. According to a Congressional Research Service report on House decorum from 1999, calling the president a “liar” has been ruled out of order.
Yet the rules are only as strict as the speaker charged with enforcing them, and McCarthy took little action to silence his unruly members, staying mostly still as they yelled out. A spokesperson for McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Such a scene would not have flown in the British Parliament, where rowdy debate is a tradition and members often jeer loudly but are barred from using expletives or hurling accusations of misconduct, including lying.
“If that had been in the British House of Commons, it would have stopped at the word ‘liar,’” said Sean Haughey, a lecturer in political science at the University of Liverpool. “The speaker would have immediately intervened, giving the person the opportunity to withdraw their remark, and if they refused, escorted them out.”
The coarsening in conduct in Congress, he added, could have real consequences at a time when political extremism is on the rise in the United States.
“In old established democracies, when you see an increase in this type of behaviour, it’s usually symptomatic of a breakdown in democratic norms,” Haughey said.
Biden took the carnival-like atmosphere in stride, at one point almost grinning at the reaction he elicited and suggesting that Republicans had taken his bait on safeguarding entitlement programs. “As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now!” the president said.
Such outbursts have drawn official rebukes in the past, such as in 2009, when Republican Representative Joe Wilson, yelled “you lie” to President Barack Obama during an address on health care. He apologised profusely later that night, and the House voted within days to condemn his commentary as a “breach of decorum” that “degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House”.
But in the intervening years, other displays of protest have been allowed to slide by.
Last year, Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican, faced no consequences when she yelled “you put them there — 13 of them” when Biden mentioned the flag-draped coffins of American service members. The president had been discussing measures to help veterans suffering from cancer, but Boebert was referring to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, when an attack on the Kabul airport left 13 US service members dead.
In February 2020, a handful of Democratic House members walked out in protest during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. That was before Speaker Nancy Pelosi dramatically ripped up the pages of Trump’s address after the close of his remarks — an episode that even Republicans who were uneasy about Tuesday night’s outbursts reached for to justify them.
“We should raise the decorum of the House. But it’s being sanctimonious on their end — should we have rebuked Speaker Pelosi for ripping the speech?” said Republican Representative Don Bacon. “I think we should all do better.”
Yet experts worry that ignoring Tuesday night’s heckling could make it difficult to return to an era of more polite dealings — especially given how much more indecorous behaviour has graced the halls of Congress in the past. One famous example of how bad things can get comes from 1856, when a House member beat a senator with a cane.
“It’s not as though there has never been this kind of violation of behaviour,” said Joanne Freeman, a professor of American history at Yale University who has studied violence in Congress.
But she said Tuesday’s outbursts were particularly troubling because “this one was extreme, it was repeated, and it was coming from people who have already disrespected the government and the office of the presidency.”
“It isn’t just a few random people yelling something at the president,” Freeman added. “It’s part of an ongoing attack against national institutions of government and the national political process.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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