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Toward a more civil Congress

It is a simple, almost simple-minded idea. But it signals a change in the atmosphere on Capitol Hill and it could have important consequences.

Reps. David Skaggs, D-Colo., and Ray LaHood, R-Ill., proposed last week that early in 1997, all the members of the House, regardless of party, and their spouses take a few days off to get to know each other. The retreat would be designed to restore a bit of fellowship to a Congress whose poisonous partisanship has sickened, not just the voters, but many of the members.

About a dozen others, spanning the ideological spectrum, joined Skaggs and LaHood in signing a letter to Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., asking that planning begin soon for such a postelection session. The two leaders said they liked the notion.

Why do members of the House, who see each other every day in committees and on the floor, need to go off to some resort or conference center for more talk? The reason, say several of those supporting the idea, is that communication between members of the opposing parties really has broken down.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a freshman Democrat from California, recalled that "the only time we saw the freshman Republicans during the orientation period (before the opening of this Congress in 1995) was when we stood on the Capitol steps to have our pictures taken. That is not healthy."

Through most of the 1970s and 1980s, after each election, freshmen of both parties went off for a week to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for discussions with faculty members about some of the issues they were likely to face.

"It helped cleanse some of the contentiousness of a just-completed campaign," said Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Ohio, who went through the process in 1986, "and it was a wonderful bonding experience. It let people get to know each other on a personal level and to recognize the genuinely complex mosaic of opinion that Congress is."

But in the 1990s, as ideological lines hardened, Republicans decided to pull out of the bipartisan orientation process and instead sent their freshmen to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, for policy briefings.

That was part of a steady estrangement between the parties _ escalating into personal assaults on key members of the opposition. Gingrich filed the ethics charges that led to SpeakerJim Wright, D-Texas, resigning in 1989. Gingrich had no more than taken office last year when the No. 2 House Democrat, Minority Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich., began bringing ethics charges against him. Now the House Ethics Committee itself is embroiled in bitter partisanship over the Gingrich case.

All this is a far cry from the time a generation ago, when Tip O'Neill, the well-loved Democratic leader, would play cards after work and golf on weekends with the top House Republicans, Jerry Ford and Bob Michel.

"Now," said Ray LaHood, who worked for Michel for 12 years before succeeding his old boss in the 1994 election, "Gingrich and Gephardt don't even talk to each other. Something has gone awry."

Clearly, the parties have moved apart. There are fewer moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to form a cohesive center in the House. But the venom quotient has increased faster than the ideological polarization. Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., a close ally of Gingrich's, said that "in the 16 years I've served here, I've seen a real deterioration of comity." Like others, he blamed the "virulent antipathy" of House debates for producing "corrosive cynicism" in the public.

"The respect for others' opinions has been lost," said Rep. Larry Combest, R-Texas, lamenting the absence of the camaraderie he saw between conservative pillar John G. Tower and liberal icon Hubert H. Humphrey when he was on Tower's Senate staff in the 1970s. "They had intense debates, but they would walk off the floor arm in arm, because they were friends," Combest said. "That's the way it ought to be, but it's not the way it is here."

Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., an 18-year veteran, said "the huge turnover in membership and the fact that more than usual have come without experience in legislative bodies," has accentuated the problem.

Skaggs said the response to his idea has been "uniformly positive," adding that when he showed people the draft of the letter to the leadership, "it was like bringing a canteen to a thirsty traveler." What that suggests to me is that members of both parties recognize the damage to the institution _ and to the country's interests _ from the excessive partisanship of this Congress.

Little can be done to break this cycle of partisan warfare in the few legislative days left before Congress quits for the 1996 campaign. But a fresh start may be possible in 1997 _ and the Skaggs-LaHood initiative could make it a positive one.

Washington Post Writers Group