In a forthcoming book on congressional norms I am writing, I argue that, despite what we may think about congressional dysfunction and partisan bickering, the norm of courtesy is surprisingly alive and relatively well in the modern Congress. This is echoed in interviews with current and former members and staff who often point out that, despite what makes news headlines, members generally treat each other with courtesy on and off the floor. Events on Tuesday were indeed dramatic and they made for riveting moments on C-SPAN. But they were dramatic and riveting because they were so unusual — exceptions that prove the rule.
Further evidence of the norm of courtesy comes across in analysis of the words taken down process. I have gathered data on every instance in which the words taken down process was invoked for the 80th through the 112th Congresses, including the identity of both the accused and the accuser, as well as the resolution of each case. If we allow calls for words to be taken down to serve as a measure of breaches of the norm of courtesy, we can arrive at some striking findings regarding the resilience of this norm over time.
In the data we see a total of 251 demands for words taken down during the 80th through the 112th Congresses; an average of 7.67 cases per Congress and a range from a low of zero cases in the 90th Congress to 28 in the 104th. During this period, there were a total of 14,574 individual congressional terms served and yet only 231 individual members whose words were ever so challenged, for a total rate of 1.59% of members among all members who ever served in each of the 33 Congresses. This suggests that such breaches of the norm of courtesy in the House of Representatives are extremely rare.