Heckling of Biden Reflects a New, Coarser Normal for House G.O.P.

WASHINGTON — The House floor has been no stranger to rowdy spectacle in 2023, but the eruptions of Republican vitriol against President Biden during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night underscored a new and notably coarse normal in Congress, where members of the G.O.P. 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 Mr. 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.

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 J. Trump is unapologetic about its antipathy for Mr. 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 Ms. Greene, Republican of Georgia, who rose to yell “liar” at Mr. Biden repeatedly after he noted that some Republicans favored 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 Mr. McCarthy before the speech to be on good behavior, 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 Mr. 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.

Asked whether she feared a rebuke for her heckling of Mr. Biden, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, replied, “Not one bit.”Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Such members “are proudly disrupters, and I don’t think McCarthy has a very good way to rein in the behavior of his rank-and-file members,” said Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University. “So it potentially allows that behavior to fester and continue, especially if there’s no perceived punishment or cost to doing so.”

Biden’s State of the Union Address

  • Challenging the G.O.P.: In the first State of the Union address of a new era of divided government, President Biden delivered a plea to Republicans for unity but vowed not to back off his economic agenda.
  • State of Uncertainty: Mr. Biden used his speech to portray the United States as a country in recovery. But what he did not emphasize was that America also faces a lot of uncertainty in 2023.
  • Foreign Policy: Mr. Biden spends his days confronting Russia and China. So it was especially striking that in his address, he chose to spend relatively little time on America’s global role.
  • A Tense Exchange: Before the speech, Senator Mitt Romney admonished Representative George Santos, a fellow Republican, telling him he “shouldn’t have been there.”

Technically speaking, the outbursts most likely violated House rules on decorum, dictating that members wait to be recognized 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 Mr. McCarthy took little action to silence his unruly members, staying mostly still as they yelled out. A spokesman for Mr. 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 behavior, it’s usually symptomatic of a breakdown in democratic norms,” Mr. Haughey said.

Mr. 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 Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, yelled “you lie” to President Barack Obama during an address on health care. He apologized 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 of Colorado, faced no consequences when she yelled “you put them there — 13 of them” when Mr. Biden mentioned the flag-draped coffins of American service members. The president had been discussing measures to help veterans suffering from cancer, but Ms. Boebert was referring to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, when an attack on the Kabul airport left 13 U.S. service members dead.

In February 2020, a handful of Democratic House members walked out in protest during President Donald J. 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 Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska. “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 behavior 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 behavior,” said Joanne Freeman, a professor of American history at Yale 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,” Dr. Freeman added. “It’s part of an ongoing attack against national institutions of government and the national political process.”

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