Well, the first thing that must be said on this topic is, "Go **** yourself."
That's not directed at you Lisa, of course. That was Vice President Cheney's suggestion to Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., when they happened to come upon each other on the floor of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, the U.S. Senate. Another example of elevated polemics: A Democratic member of the House, Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., recently referred to a Republican opponent during floor debate as a "Howdy Doody-looking nimrod."
Yes, your U.S. Congress, and especially the House, is marked by a vitriolic and visceral hatred between the two major parties, which often animates the dialogue around here. But that has been the case for most of the past decade and is in part a reflection of the narrow differences in the parties' respective numbers: legislative success depends upon party discipline, and to achieve it the other guy has to be, to some extent, demonized.
But the House is intentionally designed to be a forum for the passions of the day. Members channel the frustrations and emotions of the masses, and, as if their very beings were possessed of the popular anger, vent on the House floor or in the committee room. So naturally, things may from time to time get out of hand. I've often thought that the place doesn't get enough credit for being a sort of national steam valve, functioning as a kind of societal catharsis, though lately that role has been co-opted by prime-time cable news (former House members hosting cable shows: coincidence?). And, consistent with Lisa's thesis, the House often reflects current cultural standards and trends. To choose a silly but illustrative example, not too long ago I was standing in Statuary Hall and was "dapped" by a white Republican member of Congress from Connecticut who happened by (thereby providing irrefutable evidence that this particular fad has jumped the shark).
So I do get a little skeptical when people start wringing their hands and pining for the Good Ol' Days. Yes, people were more polite back then and they wore fedoras and there was a heightened sense of decorum, and blah blah blah. But listen, members of Congress have been giving each other the "up yours" on the floor during debate; yanking each other's ties in anger; caning each other; actually shooting each other in a duel; and otherwise putting each other down all throughout the history of the Republic. There is and always has been the potential for bad behavior in political debate. That's why so many niceties were built into the vernacular of Congress - "The Gentlelady" this; "The distinguished senior Senator" that; "Will the gentleman yield?"; etc. - to grease the wheels of dialogue. Language is a powerful tool.
And before we get to romanticizing about the how civilized everything was back in the day, let's look at some of the ambassadors from that era who are still with us. Senator Robert Byrd, D-W.V., once held the position of Exalted Cyclops in the KKK before he changed his views on race and later got elected to Congress. The legendary Sam Rayburn once explained to then-Rep. Dan Inouye, D-Hawaii - who lost a limb as a result of heroic actions in World War II combat - that he would soon be famous in the halls of Congress, due to his unique position as "a one-armed Jap." And since we're journalists talking about show business, in "His Girl Friday" (1940) Roz Russell played a female reporter whose career was a frowned-upon aberration from a more acceptable, anonymous life as a domestic spouse. We may rail against the tyranny of political correctness in modern American life, but very few of us want to go back to a time when those standards of behavior and expression were acceptable.
Before virtually anyone who might read this was born, H.L. Mencken observed that nobody ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the American people. I guess the point I'm making is that from the time of Mencken to the time of Paulie Walnuts - and before and beyond - there have always been baser elements in society that find their voice both in pop culture and, as a reflection of that, here in Congress. To say that there is a recent diminution of decorum in political speech is, I think, not necessarily the case.