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Must health reforms die, so Congress can vacation?


WASHINGTON -- The conventional wisdom here these days is that President Clinton is running out of time in winning congressional approval for a health care reform package. The measure needs to be handled before the August recess, we are told, or it will fall into the midterm election campaign.

That line suggests that there will be only two weeks or so to find compromises in the Senate and House on the various health care bills that have emerged from committee so that they can be passed and move on to a conference in September and a final up-or-down vote before Congress adjourns as close to Oct. 1 as possible.

But what is so sacrosanct about that August recess? Members of Congress already have enjoyed little mini-vacations -- a few days to a week -- built around Presidents Day, Easter, Memorial ** Day and now Independence Day.

Are they really so worn from their labors they need that full month of August when there is such important legislation -- it deals with 14 percent of the gross domestic product -- to be polished, considered and either approved or rejected?

The insistence that the August recess is sacrosanct seems to ignore some of the realities of American politics today.

One of them is the large number of voters who believe members of Congress already are overpaid.

Another is the large number who favor term limits because they believe members of Congress are out of touch with ordinary life.

But those who defend congressional salaries and reject term limits find their arguments being undercut when senators and congressmen adopt such an ambassadorial lifestyle.

In most businesses, a decision comparable to the one on health care would have a priority that would put it far ahead of vacationing as usual. And where there are no such crises to be faced, few American workers enjoy as much time off as these politicians.

Members of Congress argue predictably that they work long hours when they are in session, and that unquestionably is true. But much of that work time is spent on either meaningless routine or self-promotion for political purposes.

Senators and congressman feel obliged to show up at so many after-work receptions, for example, because they are counting on campaign contributions from the political action committees operated by the hosts.

The congressmen also argue that these many breaks in the process are not vacations but "district days" set aside for meeting with their constituents back home and learning firsthand about their problems. That is often the case, but does anyone imagine these people are going to be spending the entire month of August holding office hours back home?

All of this carping about how much time a senator or House member spends on the job sounds very much like the know-nothingism encouraged by so many radio talk shows these days.

And that is inevitably unfair to many senators and members of the House who work on serious issues and are extremely diligent -- and extremely underpaid considering the skills they bring to their jobs.

But health care reform is not just any issue. It is one of the things voters wanted to see accomplished -- although not necessarily in just the way Bill Clinton has proposed -- when they voted for change in the 1992 campaign by turning out an incumbent clearly uninterested in domestic policy questions.

So it is fair to say that the ability of the system to work is being tested by the health care question.

Nor is this just any time. The cynicism with which Americans regard all institutions and government in particular seemed to be suspended -- at least for the moment -- during the 1992 campaign when the presidential debates drew unprecedented audiences and the turnout actually increased for the first time since 1960.

But there are clear indicators in recent opinion surveys that the doubts have returned and in some cases perhaps been reinforced by the performance of both Clinton and Congress over the last 18 months.

Members of Congress aren't going to solve that problem by working through the August recess. And they are entitled to some time off for a vacation just like anyone else.

But that is not the same as saying that the timetable for health care reform should be driven by the timetable for Congress-as-usual.

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