Stateline Story

Manners Still Matter In Statehouses

  • October 21, 2002
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Legislative customs vary from state to state, but when it comes to decorum on the statehouse floor, blazers are in, and cell phones are out.

Rules of civility started in the English parliament in ancient times, and continue today in U.S. statehouses , most of which do business in an air of formality. Rules commonly include bans on smoking, chewing tobacco and food and drink on the statehouse floor. Other rules demand that members address each other courteously and dress appropriately.

Sometimes the rules vary. For example, the Illinois Senate requires coat-and-tie for men, but the House does not. Dress codes often apply to both lawmakers and staff, such as pages, who work on the floor.

In the Colorado House, coats and ties are mandatory for men during votes but there's a more relaxed dress code during legislative debate. Colorado Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, said the subject of decorum most often arises when the presiding member rebukes a legislator for getting personal in making an argument. But scoldings only happen in a partisan manner, Madden said.

"Republicans never get called for insulting Democrats," Madden said.

In an era when personal cellular telephones are ubiquitous, legislatures are acting to preserve "quiet zones."

"The trend I'm seeing is more and more specific rules that prohibit use of cell phones," on the statehouse floor, said Brenda Erickson, legislative procedure expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States such as Ohio and Kansas have officially banned cell phones from the House floor. In New Jersey, Washington, Colorado and Mississippi, cell phones on the House floor aren't tolerated, but no written rule bans them. In the Arizona Senate and New York Assembly, cell phones are still allowed.

Kansas lawmakers this year reinstated the Apple Committee, which helps enforce unwritten rules of decorum by requiring violators to buy apples for their colleagues.

Kansas Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, pushed for the custom after Rep. Jerry Aday, R-Ellsworth, offended his sense of decorum by giving a speech while wearing a Kansas State windbreaker. (O'Neal is a Kansas University grad.)

Aday said, "[O'Neal] started yelling Apple!' That would have been the end of it, but I brought everybody an apple. I had two cases of apples delivered to his desk. It was all done in fun and humor."

Earlier this year in South Carolina, Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, ordered sensitivity training for House lawmakers after an anonymous memo from a fictitious "Men's Caucus" urged female pages to wear skimpy attire. The memo was in response to a reminder from the House page director for female pages to dress appropriately.

It's up to whoever is chairing a legislature to decide what is and is not in order.

When Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen presides over the state senate, he's a stickler for formality. Outbursts are forbidden. No food or drink is allowed on the floor, men must wear a suit and tie, and women must "dress respectfully." No blue jeans.

Owen said enforcing decorum is important because, "People need to respect the person in charge. If you get sloppy, you're going to lose your respect and ability to preside effectively."

But even Owen makes an occasional exception.

Spotting a box of Girl Scout cookies on a legislator's desk during a recent session, Owen said, "Senator, you realize that food is not allowed. However, if you were willing to share these with other members including myself, then I would be willing to bend the rules."