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Tuesday, June 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:51 PM

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Letter from Washington

Dicks bemoans messiness of his House

Seattle Times Washington bureau

There was a time when politicians played nice in the sandbox called Congress. But the sand has become awfully gritty recently.

"The atmosphere is poisonous," says an exasperated Rep. Norm Dicks, the veteran Democrat from Bremerton. "You can't get anything done."

Dicks has served since 1976. He was part of the era of Scoop and Maggie — legendary Washington Sens. Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson — when cooperation and politeness were more in order.

"Hey, they were the good old days," Dicks said.

Changes in Congress' schedule, the high cost of campaigning and raw partisanship have caused a political pileup so notorious that Republican Senate candidate Mike McGavick is running on a campaign platform emphasizing not better security or lower budget deficits but civility.

One problem: The House is in session only three days a week — and it's not even three full days, Dicks complained. "It's a day and a half. It's ridiculous."

Under GOP leadership, the House pulls itself together Tuesday afternoons and then breaks for the week in time for lawmakers to head back home to their districts Thursday evening.

Shorter weeks mean shorter shrift for legislation. Bills presented at the last minute often are too complex to review before a vote and frequently contain expensive surprises.

The recent attempt by Alaskans to move the Coast Guard cutter Healy from Seattle to Anchorage was hidden so well in a 78-page bill last fall that it wasn't noticed for weeks.

Dicks said he doesn't believe in rushing back to Bremerton every week. "I didn't think it was right," he said. "You worked here, in D.C."

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Now, members spend four days out of seven in their districts. "And most of the time you have to go to fundraisers," Dicks said.

Members spend too much time outside D.C. to become friends inside the capital, Dicks said. Members used to go out for drinks or dinner. They and their spouses joined in nonpartisan charities that cemented personal connections.

"That meant you could pick up the phone and call someone" about a disagreement, Dicks said, heading off nasty encounters on C-SPAN or CNN.

But it became chic for politicians to critique the "inside the Beltway" mentality as out of touch with the rest of America.

Washington state Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are among those who don't hang with colleagues. They work late, hit a fundraiser or two and then head to their D.C-area homes. Most weekends are spent in Washington state.

Dicks said he thinks he's lucky to serve on the House Appropriations Committee, one of the few panels where dignity still reigns. "Heck," he said, laughing, "I wouldn't even be in Congress if I were on the House Ways and Means Committee," which is infamous for vituperative fights.

Of course, Dicks conceded, his rosy view of past Congresses includes the halcyon days of Democratic clout. Republicans might have a different take on life when Democrats were in charge.

"We had a 2-1 majority, and the Republicans had to cooperate in order to be relevant," Dicks said. "Now, they don't have to tell us anything."

Alicia Mundy is

The Seattle Times Washington, D.C., correspondent. She can be reached at 202-622-7457 or at amundy@

seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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