There they go again.

Just when it seemed safe to tune in C-SPAN and listen to a little high-minded debate in Congress, the volume went up, the attacks got personal, and what some wistfully believed might be a new era of civility on Capitol Hill flew out the window.The place had been getting nicer, according to a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center: Fewer members had been called "out of order," and name-calling, insults, use of the word "lie," and other pejoratives had dropped markedly on the House floor this session of Congress, which began in 1997, compared with the prior term.

But the new round of bad manners in Washington isn't surprising. Some say it's just a symptom of the cultural incivility that produces, among other things, the no-holds-barred "Jerry Springer Show," road rage, surges in school violence, and basketball brawls.

Blame for the current breakdown in Washington is falling on Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who set a fighting mood earlier when he released edited tapes of former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell's private telephone talks from prison.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called the release of the tapes "vile and reprehensible." And Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said Burton is "incompetent . . . the worst kind of McCarthyite."

Burton apologized to fellow Republicans - but not Democrats - for the clamor he caused, and he ousted the top investigator on the committee he chairs.

The gloves are coming off others, too. House Republican leaders who for months wouldn't criticize President Clinton's character or capitalize on allegations of his sexual misconduct now are vowing to make questions about his moral authority part of the daily political diet.

Texas Rep. Dick Armey, the majority leader, recently called Clinton "a shameless person." Burton said the president is a "scumbag."

"This is about lawbreaking," House Speaker Newt Gingrich said of Clinton's behavior. "This is not about sex. This is not about gossip. This is not about soap operas."

In response, White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry said the White House would work with Gingrich "as soon as he comes back to his senses."

"All this makes it pretty impossible to reach our goal," laments Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who organized a 1997 retreat in Hershey, Pa., aimed at increasing civility and respect in the House. The event was attended by 200 members of Congress.

"Meaning in our politics and our society has been displaced by meanness," says Barry Sanders, a professor at Pitzer College and author of "The Private Death of Public Discourse." "If I want to get noticed, I have to talk louder, hit harder, act nastier. You see it on the highway, in the classroom, flaming on the Internet, even in the bigger, meaner" sport utility vehicles.

In her book "The Argument Culture," author Deborah Tannen says television and talk radio have played a big role in framing political debate and disagreement - both essential to the democracy - as battles that reward the most outrageous and angry arguments with air time.

"It's entertaining to watch a fight, so everything has to be reduced to conflict, and that makes you boring if you don't have a hostile attitude or edge," Tannen says.