Capitol Letter: Uncivil Society

Civility has never been a big part of Rep. Cynthia McKinney's operating style. The liberal Georgia Democrat, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from her state, has honed a reputation for racial demagoguery and partisan trash talk. She called former House speaker Newt Gingrich "a little piglet who spent most of his days rolling around in a filthy ditch."

Of black Republicans, McKinney once said: "My impression ... is they have to pass a litmus test in which all black blood is extracted." The other day, McKinney attacked President Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, which is scheduled to have its first component (a $958 billion rate reduction) voted on-and passed-by the House today. "The numbers don't add up," she said in a statement, "and I know there's boogers and hanks in them details."

Boogers and hanks? McKinney spokesman Jocco Baccus says it's Southern vernacular for "smoke and mirrors," and that "only Northern reporters" were puzzled by the reference. (Actually, while "booger" has a widely-understood meaning, an informal survey of Southern political writers revealed complete puzzlement over "hanks," although one thought it might be a bastardization of "haints," or ghosts.)

Baccus says he doesn't know whether the congresswoman will be attending the House's biennial "civility retreat," an effort at bipartisan bridge-building that begins Friday at the posh Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. And while other House Democrats are not as vividly outspoken as McKinney, they are not in a terribly civil mood these days. "Grumpy" is how one Democratic aide describes them. After a deeply disappointing 2000 election season in which both the presidency and their hopes for recapturing the majority slipped away, Democrats are at loose ends-unsure about what their message should be and frustrated by the GOP's ability to steamroll legislation through the chamber. They are nursing a long list of grievances against Speaker Dennis Hastert over matters like apportionment of committee seats and staff budgets and his refusal to allow equal-partisan representation on a special panel studying election reforms (it's currently 5-4, favoring Republicans). Democrats have also chafed under procedural roadblocks that have often made it impossible to introduce legislative alternatives to GOP measures when they reach the floor. (The mood may have improved slightly yesterday when House Republican leaders agreed to allow Democrats a floor vote on an alternative $585 billion tax-cut package).

"This administration came to Washington saying it wanted to change the tone, but there's been no change around here," complained one senior aide to the Democratic leadership. House Republicans reply that unlike the Senate, where there is a 50-50 tie, they're still in the majority, albeit a slender one (220-211, with two Independents and two vacancies) and under no obligation to share power. It's also true that the GOP is doing little that Democrats didn't do to Republicans for decades when they controlled the House.

Some of these issues will be on the agenda at the Greenbrier this weekend (no reporters and only minimal staff allowed) although it's difficult to imagine that the gathering, formally known as the Bipartisan Congressional Retreat, will do much to clear the air. Organized in 1997 by a small group of current and former members (including former Democratic Rep. David Skaggs of Colorado and Republicans Ray LaHood of Illinois and Amo Houghton of New York) and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the retreat is an attempt to recapture, if only for a couple of days, a slower and more genteel political era before television and jet travel, when members stayed in Washington and socialized instead of dashing home to their districts for the weekend.

Poll: What do you think of tax cuts?

But House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt seriously considered boycotting the affair, and almost certainly would have had Republicans not allowed Democrats to introduce an alternative tax plan. He is now due to attend, if grudgingly, along with Speaker Hastert. The estimated 200 other members who are expected to show up will sit in plenary sessions and small break-out groups designed to bring down partisan barriers and will hear from a lineup of marquee speakers (historian David McCullough, actress-author Anna Deavere Smith and AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case) designed to jog their thinking on various issues. There will also be more personal discussions about how political careers affect marriages and family life. And those interested can have a tour of the resort's cold-war-era bomb shelter, once designated as the sanctuary for members of Congress and government officials in the event of nuclear war. Democrats who already feel like they're living in a bunker will no doubt feel right at home.

BUT WILL IT PLAY IN PEORIA?

While Bush's plan is expected to sail through the GOP-controlled House, it will face a more protracted fight in the Senate, where moderate Republicans have joined Democrats in opposition to the size of the proposed tax cut. A new poll unveiled Wednesday suggests that the Democrats might have considerable public support. The survey, conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, found that while most Americans (68 percent) like the idea of a big tax cut, closer questioning reveals significant reservations. Most do not believe that the budget surplus will be as large as estimated, and they feel that the Bush proposal benefits the well-off over middle class families. Moreover, tax relief lagged behind several issues as a priority. Those queried ranked education (21 percent), moral decline (19 percent), keeping a strong economy (19 percent), health care (14 percent) and preserving Social Security and Medicare (14 percent) ahead of taxes (7 percent) as "the most important issue facing the country."

"Tax cuts are like candy. They are always popular initially," says former Clinton pollster Mark Penn, who did the survey for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. So why did Bush make them one of his principal campaign promises and the centerpiece of his early legislative program? Because they remain hugely popular with his Republican base, which is always striving to limit the size of government.

Penn's poll suggests that Americans want a tax cut, but one with more fiscal controls than Bush is proposing. More than two-thirds, for example, support a "trigger" that stops tax reduction if projected budget surpluses don't materialize. It's an idea that will get some serious attention in the coming weeks.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 11 senators announced they would push for such a trigger provision in any tax legislation. "Democrats have nothing to fear from standing their ground," says DLC president Bruce Reed. "The Bush tax cut has a glass jaw."