How senators spend 27 percent of their time taunting each other

A Harvard researcher crunches the numbers, and finds that partisan attacks fritter away much of lawmakers' energy

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) shouts down a comment during a health care debate: Weiner isn't the only lawmaker to spend much of his time name-calling in Congress, according to a new study.
(Image credit: Getty)

It's hardly a surprise that Congress, more deeply divided than ever, is a hotbed of unproductive name-calling. But now, Harvard professor Gary King has released a thorough statistical study revealing just how much time lawmakers spend launching invective-heavy broadsides against each other. Here's a brief guide to the eerie resemblance between the halls of Congress and a particularly savage elementary-school playground:

What did the study reveal?

King, who's long studied Washington lawmakers' communication methods, has developed a "Grand Unified Theory of Congress" which posits that legislators express themselves in three different ways: Claiming credit for something; laying out their position on a particular issue; or simply advertising themselves to build name recognition. But over the years, King and his researchers began to notice a fourth (and increasingly prominent) dimension: Name-calling. Analyzing 64,033 press releases put out by senators from 2005 to 2007, King and Co. found found that 27 percent of those documents consisted of the legislators launching partisan attacks against their political foes.

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Who indulged most heavily in taunts?

Lawmakers in "safe" seats who don't face much of a challenge come election time. These legislators can afford to be more partisan than others, since they run a lower risk of alienating constituents who may shift their support to rival candidates.

Do the bigwigs do it, too?

Yes. Asked to analyze a week's worth of recent press releases, King quickly found instances of name-calling from two of Congress' most prominent leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for example, said that "Republicans have shown they couldn’t care less about those who have the least.” House Majority Whip Eric Cantor opined that "Democrats have not displayed the same interest [as Republicans] in listening to the American people." Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), in particular, has made a national name for himself by constantly hurling evermore outrageous insults at Republicans — suggesting, for instance, that every member of the party is a "wholly-owned subsidiary" of the health insurance industry.

What does this say about D.C.?

"No wonder they can’t get anything done," says Frederick E. Allen at Forbes. Yeah, and "it's not like the rise of taunting has come about because of some sudden spike in political courage," says Jason Linkins at The Huffington Post. King was also downcast about his conclusions. "The entire government may go bankrupt, I guess. This week, right?" he told the The Washington Post. "We probably want our representatives to be listening to each other rather than calling each other names."

Does everyone think this is so bad?

No. Chastizing opponents can serve an important political purpose, says Yale professor David Mayhew, as quoted by the Post. You’ve got to have an opposition that taunts and a government that taunts back” to highlight their differences on key issues, he said. And some observers find King's data relatively cheering: 27 percent is "much lower than we would have expected. It's great news!" says Gawker.

Sources: Washington Post, Gawker, Forbes, Huffington Post

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