Lawmakers trade heckling and tweeting for a return to civility in Congress

Whatever the state of our union, the state of Congress is once again civil.

Less than five months after Republican Congressman Joe Wilson’s (S.C.) emotional outburst during President Barack Obama’s last address to Congress, the tact and decorum that for a time threatened to disappear for good has returned to the House and Senate.

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That is, at least when the world is watching.

Gone from Wednesday’s prime-time State of the Union address were the catcalls and heckling that led to the House formally admonishing Wilson for shouting “You lie!” during Obama’s September address to a joint session of Congress on healthcare.

Gone, too – with a few exceptions – was the relentless BlackBerrying and Twittering of a large swath of members who in September seemed more focused on live blogging their reactions to the speech than listening to it.

Wilson and nearly all of his Republican colleagues – along with the vast majority of Democrats – sat and listened respectfully to the president, applauding and cheering when they agreed, and occasionally shaking their heads when they didn’t, as had been tradition until September.

When Obama asked for anyone from either party who had a “better approach” to healthcare reform to let him know, House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio) raised his hand, then led Republicans in standing up in apparent applause for the Republican health reform prescription, coming as close as anyone to upstaging the president.

But for the members, most moments of disagreement were met with levity – a far cry from the exasperation and vitriol of just a few months ago.

After Obama listed a number of tax cuts initiated by Democrats to be met with stony silence from Republicans, Obama turned to them and quipped, “I thought I’d get some applause for that.” For that line, he got laughter.

The one true moment of tension came when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appeared to mouth “Not true” in response to Obama’s criticism of the Court’s recent decision that effectively upends decades worth of campaign finance laws and regulations.

Obama said the 5-4 decision – which Alito agreed with – will “open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.”

Alito, though, has a lifetime appointment, and after the speech a number of members – Democrats and Republicans – attributed their newfound comity to a newfound sense of political vulnerability that hit home last week after voters in Massachusetts sent Republican Scott Brown to the Senate out of anger as much as any other single motive.

“The president himself talked about this, and, you know what? The president is right. This isn’t a backlash at one side or the other, it’s a backlash at all of us,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.).

“I think that politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize – and I don’t know if they fully recognize, but I think they are beginning to recognize – that there is an unrest amongst the people with politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington,” said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). “And that we better get about the people’s business.”

To be sure, though, statements that went out after the speech contained a healthy dose of scathing rhetoric, the same kind that is present in most of the press releases that churn out of Democratic and Republican offices daily.

“The President came before the nation this evening with an opportunity to acknowledge the message Americans are trying to get past the stone walls of our nation’s capitol. Unfortunately, it appears he’s completely stone deaf,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in a statement.

Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), both members of the House Democratic leadership, issued a joint release calling Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s GOP response “emblematic of today’s Republican Party: fuzzy facts and no real solutions."

But those statements were issued long after the live cameras were shut off, and after the eyes of the nation were averted from every twitch, type and scowl made in the House chamber.

“I think the media’s done a good job of exposing our preoccupation with BlackBerries, for one thing,” said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). “But I think respect has returned, too… I think to some degree the theatrics of last year were demonstrative of the ultimate breakdown of courtesy that I think these addresses have demanded.”

Of course, there were other theories, too.

“I was so grateful that the president came in being civil this time,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said, pinning the blame for last year’s debacle squarely on the president’s shoulders. “The last speech he came in accusing us of misrepresentations and distortions, and in fact he used the ‘L’ word two sentences before Joe Wilson did. So I was so grateful that he came in this time without all the allegations.”

“I think in an odd way Joe Wilson’s bad behavior chastened everybody,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “I also think that as a dynamic Republicans think they’re on the verge of some serious gains and they don’t want to mess it up.

"When you feel you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose,” Connolly continued. “Now they feel that they do have something to lose.”