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‘One-minute’ attack speeches becoming routine in U.S. House

Rep. Joe Wilson’s rebuke of President Obama during a joint-session of Congress is drawing a lot of attention and scorn, but the substance of his comments did not stray far from what many members say almost every day on the House floor.

Rep. Joe Wilson giving a one-minute speech on government-run health care on the House floor on Sept. 14.

Rep. Joe Wilson’s rebuke of President Obama during a joint-session of Congress is drawing a lot of attention and scorn, along with comparisons to the inflammatory rhetoric at recent town hall meetings, but the substance of his comments did not stray far from what many members say almost every day on the House floor.

At the beginning of most legislative days, representatives come to the House floor to deliver partisan one-minute speeches. Although members sometimes speak about their constituents or policy proposals, party leaders have taken an active role in coordinating one-minutes so that they consist of attacks on the other party or a defense of one’s own party. Typically considered the leader of his party, the president and his policies are often the focus of these partisan speeches.

Indeed, the “Republican Theme Team” and the “Democratic Message Group” recruit members to deliver one-minutes to reinforce the party’s daily message.

Congressional observers, and even some members, have tried, unsuccessfully, to curb the use of one-minutes because they start the day off with a partisan tone.

A 1997 report by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “Civility in the House of Representatives,” recommended that the House eliminate one-minutes or move them to the end of the day. A bipartisan group of more than 50 members of Congress sent letters to the House speaker in the 104th, 105th and 106th Congresses to complain that one-minutes had become “a series [of] soundbite assaults . . . highly conducive to the kind of attacks that used to be reserved for campaign commercials.”

Wilson, R-S.C., plays a key role in the delivery of partisan attacks through one-minute speeches. According to our research on congressional speech, Wilson gave more one-minute speeches than any other member of Congress in the 108th and 109th Congresses (156 and 117 speeches, respectively) and he gave the second highest number in the 110th Congress with 158 (only Texan Republican Ted Poe delivered more).

Partisan leaders
In our content analysis of these speeches in the last Congress, we found that Wilson was among the most partisan members as measured by his attacks against Democrats and his defense of Republicans. Among the titles of Wilson’s speeches: “Democrat Hoax Bill Was All About Political Cover,” “Democrats’ Defeatist Supplemental Bill” and “Democrats’ Plan Doesn’t Cut It.”

Democrats are also active in the one-minute partisan bashing sessions. In fact, on June 19, 2003, in a one-minute speech in support of AmeriCorp, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., referred to President George W. Bush as a liar, saying “the president did not tell the truth to the American people in the State of the Union. He lied to the American people around the country when he promised to expand this program.”

The speaker pro tempore ruled that Lofgren was out of order and “must refrain from personal criticism of the president.”

Wilson’s outburst was extreme, and resulted in the House approving a resolution disapproving of the interruption of a presidential speech. But although the resolution was not inherently ideological in nature, only 19 members broke with their party (12 Democrats voted no, with five more voting present, and seven Republicans voted yes; none of the Minnesota delegation) — an indication of the way in which partisan actors and partisan politics shape choices in today’s polarized era.

Understanding the premeditated partisan conflict that begins each day in the House makes Wilson’s outburst in the same chamber no less egregious. But it becomes slightly less surprising, ranking as an extreme example of how acrimonious the House has become.

Kathryn Pearson is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Political Science. Logan Dancey is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science.