Washington mourns lost art of conversation

This week's budget 'summit' brings a new longing for the days when

One headline from this week's budget summit is that President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders agreed not to raid the Social Security surplus.

Another is simply that they met.

Until the much-heralded meeting, Mr. Clinton hadn't talked in person with GOP leaders since mid-July. For the year, he's averaging about one face-to-face conversation every two months - an improvement over 1998 when, under the cloud of impeachment, he didn't meet with them once.

But even with the uptick, Clinton sees congressional leaders far less often than did previous presidents. His aloofness, observers say, mirrors a general trend in Washington: Republicans and Democrats have neither the will - nor the time - to see one another, either during their days at work or at night on the social circuit.

Some here attribute Washington's increasingly uncomfortable climate of partisanship and suspicion to a decline in cross-party get-togethers, at least in part.

Without the hobnobbing, personal relationships have not developed - and they have long been the bridge that enables lawmakers to traverse the ideological divide.

"It's a perfect formula for gridlock" and misunderstanding, says Leon Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff. Relationships based on actual human contact - not the phone, not e-mail, not the dispatching of aides to the other camp - are key to making Washington work, he says.

The recent Senate defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which caught the White House off guard, is a case in point. In a Monitor breakfast with reporters, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complained about the Clinton administration's lack of communication on the issue.

When Ronald Reagan was president, Senator Lugar said, he asked a senior Democratic senator to form a bipartisan arms-control group. The group regularly traveled to Geneva to talk with US and Russian arms negotiators. It was a process that stretched over years, not months.

"This naive thought of the president, that you don't start doing anything till hearings are held, and then you have a few celebrities, Nobel laureates, and what have you, it's zilch. It means nothing," said a frustrated Lugar.

Observers say the trend accelerated with the election of Clinton, and then the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The president's management style is to focus on one issue and then move on, says Mr. Panetta, rather than to meet regularly with congressional leaders to cover a range of subjects.

By contrast, Presidents Reagan and Bush kept up a fairly routine schedule of one to two meetings a month with leaders on the Hill, even when they would have preferred not to. They also had deep personal ties to individual members.

"That relationship is lacking" and is a "frustration" to Clinton aides, says Panetta, himself a congressman for 16 years.

For his part, Lugar said he drove past the State Department recently and was reminded how long it's been since he was there. "There needs to be some sort of background, and there isn't any with this administration. Hasn't been for years," he said.

Meanwhile, on the Hill....

But the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill isn't the only one that's eroding. Under the cast-iron dome of the Capitol, lawmakers these days aren't exactly swimming in a pool of collegiality either.

In the early Reagan years, 60 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle would show up for a dinner featuring, say, the Fed chairman, says Allen Schick, who formerly worked for the Congressional Research Service. By 1983, he couldn't get more than four or so to show up; most were too busy going to fund-raisers.

So Mr. Schick switched to breakfasts. That worked for a few years, until the "power breakfast" came into vogue, says Schick, who now teaches public policy at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Other factors have added to the loss of camaraderie on the Hill. Official congressional trips are less frequent, and more important, many lawmakers no longer move their families to Washington.

Much of the California delegation, for instance, flies home to the West Coast on weekends, which their constituents presumably like. But it also means they're not seeing fellow lawmakers at their kids' soccer games in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs, or at formal social events downtown.

All of this, of course, coincides with a less friendly political context. Harsh partisanship, a culture of investigation, and the demonization of the Washington establishment by Mr. Gingrich and the Republican revolutionaries of 1994 have created a "nastier" scene that makes it harder to forge cross-party friendships, says Washington Post social reporter Roxanne Roberts.

At obligatory parties, such as charity events, Republicans and Democrats break into their own tuxedo-and-taffeta clusters. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois doesn't attend these galas; Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi goes occasionally. House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri goes more often, says Ms. Roberts.

"If you're creating [an atmosphere] where federal Washington is a place to be dismantled - where all the money and power go back to the states - then there's no desire to embrace what goes on here," she says.

Freeze-out of 1994

The cold-shoulder treatment turned into a freeze-out when Gingrich took over the House speakership in 1994, says Rep. Tom Sawyer (D) of Ohio. For four years, the Speaker didn't meet with the minority leadership, says Mr. Sawyer.

Lawmakers would cross the street shoulder-to-shoulder, on their way to a vote, without speaking, he recalls. Republicans and Democrats would literally turn their backs on one another in the elevators.

Things were so bad after impeachment that the House organized a three-day civility conference for members and their families in the chocolate-kiss town of Hershey, Pa. The featured speaker was a negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace talks.

Sawyer, a conference co-chairman, says he's "hard pressed" to point to any outcome, but adds that at least the majority and minority leaderships are now meeting on an as-needed basis, and it's now "acceptable to be reasonable with your adversary."

Perhaps the state of affairs has reached such a low that Washington is ready for a turnaround, as illustrated by a recent bipartisan dinner honoring American statesman George Kennan.

Presiding over the dinner was former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert Strauss, an adviser to presidents on both sides of the aisle. In his closing comments, Mr. Strauss called for peace in Washington, and the room of 600 guests stood and applauded.

Afterward, he says he received notes thanking him for his on-target message. Meeting face-to-face with your political adversaries "makes all the difference in the world," says Strauss. "Most people are nice people - they can learn they have a lot in common."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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