House Retreating to West Virginia to Learn to Play Nice

Posted January 17, 2003 at 3:27pm

Civility: Latin for politics, politic behavior, and thus politeness. But while most people think politeness has long since left the building, the House is once again trying to restore comity with its fourth biennial civility retreat.

Slated for Feb. 28-March 2, the event promises to be much like past ones, said Becca Tice, spokeswoman for Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), who is co-chairing the event with Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).

Like the last one, this year’s retreat will be at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. The first two were held in Hershey, Pa.

Tice said invitations have gone out, but she did not know how many Members had agreed to attend. Usually about half of the membership goes, she said.

That might be overly optimistic, however, as attendance at the last retreat in 2001 was around 150 and the 1999 affair reached no more than 200 at best.

While some might question the retreat’s utility, experts hold out hope.

Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in a Guest Observer in Roll Call last Thursday that the retreat “can be a critical beginning in an ongoing process of Members getting to know other Members on a more personal basis and of building on those relationships to achieve more bipartisan comity, cooperation and consensus.”

Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer, agreed with a caveat.

“They’ve made a difference — a marginal difference,” he said. “It’s like taking a dysfunctional married couple and saying, ‘For one weekend a year, we’ll take you to Barbados so you can solve all of your problems.’ But when they return, the dysfunction is still there. It’s not like intensive, ongoing therapy.”

But it does give Members a chance to get to know each other better, he said.

“It’s easier to denounce people you don’t know personally,” he said.

“I’m all for the civility retreats, but you have to be realistic about the impact they can have,” Ornstein concluded.

Planning is still in the early stages, and it seems Members have not given it much thought yet.

A spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said he and his staff are more focused on the upcoming Republican retreat at the Greenbrier, set for Feb. 6-9.

The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the first three House retreats. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania will underwrite this year’s, while the Public Governance Institute is helping work out the logistics, Tice said.

The event is already off to a better start than 2001, when Democrats threatened to boycott in retaliation for what they said was unfair treatment by the Republican majority.