Peoria, Ill. — The South Korean airliner tragedy has diverted attention, but only temporarily. Residents in this industrial area cannot long forget the recession that holds a determined grip on their community.
The economic recovery that they hear so much about has skipped Peoria.
House minority leader Robert H. Michel, who represents this conservative area of blue-collar workers and farmers, pointed to the 16 percent unemployment.
''You've got to be a little bit careful about how you talk about the strength of the recovery, because we have lagged behind,'' he said en route to the first of two speeches one day last week.
About the only good news is that Caterpillar Tractor Company, the chief employer, has promised to stay, despite heavy losses and layoffs.
In rural areas, crops are so dried by the drought that many farmers would be wiped out if it were not for the federal payment-in-kind program. Under the program, the federal government is using its surplus stocks of grain and cotton to pay farmers not to plant.
For the House Republican leader, whose post often requires him to carry the banner for the Reagan administration, the trip home during the summer break has been just what Congress calls it, a ''district work period.''
With the exception of a few days off for golf and an emergency trip to Washington to confer with President Reagan over the South Korean airline crisis, Mr. Michel has been traveling around his district confronting often unhappy constituents.
He's a bit like an umpire at a baseball game in which both teams are losing.
''Hey, Bob, you'd better start giving us a little boost,'' said a union official as the congressman arrived at the Peoria Union Temple for a meeting with local building trade leaders.
A pro-labor candidate almost toppled Michel in the 1982 elections. So the GOP leader is working at mending bridges, talking directly to union groups, even if they don't always like what they hear.
''I'm not going to give you a lot of soft soap,'' he warned the meeting of the Trades and Labor Assembly. But he also pointed out that he had helped bring Illinois $100 million in highway construction money from the 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gas tax. And he said he backed a limited program to offer health benefits to the unemployed, aimed at those who are ''truly needy.''
''Michel is working harder than ever,'' says Jim O'Connor, president of the United Auto Workers local that represents the Caterpillar workers. ''Of course, he has good reason,'' added Mr. O'Connor in an interview in which he credited the congressman for being ''accessible to labor now'' and for attracting more federal money into the district.
Minority leader Michel still has problems with the unions. He has pleased them by supporting the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the government to pay prevailing union wages on federal construction projects. But otherwise, ''your voting according to the AFL-CIO is atrocious,'' a representative from the ironworkers local flatly told him.
''I've got to take into account the entire district that I represent,'' the congressman shot back. ''The farm areas just rake you guys over the coals.'' He told the union group that he reminds farmers of their billion-dollar federal farm programs.
''That's my role. I'm between a number of competing factions,'' he said.
That role became even clearer later in the day when the Peoria congressman spoke at a picnic sponsored by the Central Illinois Industrial Association, a conservative business group.
In the morning, he had heard a union official call for more federal housing programs. At a supper of grilled pork sandwiches, a local specialty, one business leader called for cutting out federal housing programs altogether.
''There's a plan to build over 120 houses in Peoria,'' he complained. ''We've already got 5,000 houses for sale. I am concerned because I'm in the rental business.''
''To take a broad brush and say there's no need for a housing program in this country is a bit unrealistic,'' Congressman Michel returned. He also took issue with the man's charge that the Republicans have not reduced taxes. ''Now, doggone it, we have,'' he said.
But the constituent, still not satisfied, admonished his congressman, ''The people that vote for you, Bob, are conservative. It's not the welfare mother who votes for you.''
Overall the tone among the business group was friendly, however. As he warmly introduced the congressman to the audience, John J. Gibson, the association president and staunch Michel supporter, held up a list of projects and grants that the minority leader had brought his district
''We want to encourage business and industry to come into our area,'' Michel told the business leaders, admitting that how to do that remains a ''nagging'' problem.
He also touched on Central America. Although the issue was clearly not on top of the local agenda, a Michel poll taken several weeks ago showed his constituents disapproved of the Reagan hard line in Central America.
The congressman more than once defended the administration policy. ''We're talking about an area that is at our doorstep,'' he said. ''I think we're on the right track.''
From his arctic home in Fort Yukon, 55 miles from the nearest road, US Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska says the problems facing most Americans seem far away.
That perspective, he adds, is shared by most Alaskans. At this time of year, he says, they are more concerned about hunting and preparing for winter than with debates over nuclear arms and reviving the nation's industrial base.
''This is not a doom-sayer's state,'' says Mr. Young, who was a trapper, Yukon riverboat captain, and village schoolteacher before going to Congress in 1973. ''The Alaskans are pretty much upbeat. Summer is an active time. It's not really similar to the Lower 48. Everybody is busy, everybody is working, and everybody is optimistic.
''If you were to hit me up here maybe in the last of January, it would be another story,'' he quickly adds.
Young, once described by an US Interior Department official as ''the last Davy Crockett-type in Congress,'' was interviewed by telephone from Fort Yukon, a riverside bush village of 623 people just above the Arctic Circle and 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks.
Distance, a frontier mentality, and the state's unique issues contribute to the way Alaskans perceive Washington, he says.
''They're more aware of the state scene than they might be of the national scene. We're basically 5,480 miles away from the seat of the government,'' he says.
Policy questions involving Central America are even more remote, he says: ''They know there's a problem down there. They don't know what to do, as well as I don't know what to do.''
''There is not much confidence in Congress right now,'' says Young. ''I think (Alaskans) are pretty pleased - and now I'm getting parochial - they're pleased that nothing wrong came to the state this year.''
Because Alaskans generally were angry with President Carter over his success in ''locking up'' vast blocks of federal land in parks and preserves, they are happier under President Reagan and his development-oriented Interior secretary, James Watt, Young says.
''I think they feel overall as if the country is in better shape,'' he says. ''They think that the President is doing the right thing, especially with inflation, which has affected this state more than any other.''
One question Young frequently encounters is how the state is perceived in Washington. While Alaskans are still called ''the blue-eyed Arabs of the north, '' the image is improving, he says. ''I think we're in better shape than last year, primarily because the price of oil dropped and the dividend wasn't so high.''
(The dividend is the share of state oil money mailed to each state resident. The payment is $386.15 this year, down from $1,000 a year ago.)
Most Alaskans don't share the fears of top state officials who see a gloomy economic future later this decade as the North Slope oil fields start to run dry , Young says. ''They have a great deal of confidence. They feel as if there's more oil to be found,'' he says.
''Alaska's not an old state,'' Young adds. ''Anytime a state evolves as this one, people are looking forward to the future, not reminiscing about the past. They come to this state to be better economically and socially. There's no decay here. The bad news comes out of the East Coast press.''
Michael Bilirakis, a freshman Republican congressman from Florida's new Ninth District, returned from a tour of Israel during the congressional recess to find his generally elderly contituents far more interested in education, medical costs, Central America, and immigration reform.
''I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of interest in education,'' Mr. Bilirakis says, attributing that interest to President Reagan's emphasis on the issue. ''Some of them support the President and some of them oppose him, but it's important that someone had raised the issue and people are talking about it.''
With about half of his Florida west coast constituents over 55, Bilirakis finds that many of them are also talking about the high cost of medical care. He says they advocate limiting hospital and doctors' fees.
More than 30,000 of his constituents receive veterans' benefits, he says, and many of them are also pushing for a new Veterans Administration clinic.
Everyone he talks to is concerned about American involvement in Central America, he says, and most of them support Mr. Reagan's position of taking a strong stand against communist expansion.
''The people are telling me that Central America is too close to us to ignore it,'' he says. ''They don't want us to put our heads in the sand.''
But he says most of his constituents oppose provisions in the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill that provide amnesty for illegal aliens in the United States, and he says he probably will vote against it.
One elderly woman living in a senior citizens' home caught his attention, he says, when he spoke to residents there recently. She raised a question about something that affected her more than any other issue.
''Isn't there anything the government could do about the Cuban interference on my AM radio station?'' she asked. ''All that Spanish is interfering with my listening to the Atlanta Braves baseball game.''
As for Israel, Bilirakis said his trip only confirmed his support for the nation:
''Those people are living in a world surrounded by turmoil, but they continue to build. The people are so courageous that they should be an example to the world. I'm not saying I agree with Israel's position 100 percent, but I feel Israel is an American aircraft carrier in a sea of turmoil.''
Staten Island, N.Y.
The sign in the outer office of Republican US Rep. Guy V. Molinari's district headquarters here tells a simple tale.
Like the no-smoking symbol that shows a cigarette with a slash through it, the sign features an outline of an industrial plant encircled and sliced with a bold, red line.
The biggest concern of his Staten Island constituents is ''without a doubt pollution of the environment,'' says the two-term representative. ''It is one of the most serious problems our country faces.''
During the congressional recess, Mr. Molinari has spent most of his time on Staten Island or over in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge area, also in New York's 14th District. Crime and housing are the top issues with his Brooklyn constituents, he says.
But on Staten Island, New York City's least known borough, Molinari talks with worried mothers from IRATE (Island Residents Against Toxic Environment) about the health effects of the nearby Brookfield landfill, where a trench has been dug for a sewer line. He walks along a beach where a foul odor problem felled three New York City workers recently. He investigates reports of unmarked dump trucks rumbling in and out of landfills.
When Molinari meets with a small group from IRATE, they fill him in on their efforts to get local government action on their complaints. These families don't want to move from their homes. Says one mother: ''The idea is to fight, and find out what we can do.''
Molinari says he sees these incidents as typical of a greater national public health issue.
''It is like a broken record,'' says Molinari, who helped spark the ouster of US Environmental Protection Agency chief Anne Gorsuch when he brought Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D) of Georgia to see the problems in his region. ''There are literally thousands of Brookfields throughout the country.''
As Molinari talks with constituents during his district work period, he sees them cheered by the emerging economic recovery.
''There is a greater air of optimism,'' he says as he heads past green, shady hills and bustling shopping centers. ''They admit there is an improvement in the economy.''
Molinari's district ''tends to be conservative,'' says press aide Terry Golway. The constituents support a strong military, and most are pleased that the US Navy picked Staten Island to base their Surface Action Group, led by the USS Iowa. But there is some nervousness about Central America, Mr. Golway says.
Like his constituents, Molinari is conservative. Though he is at odds with the administration on environmental issues, the congressman proudly wears a tie tack fashioned after President Reagan's signature. His district is mostly Democratic, but it went for Reagan in 1980.
Still, voters here often don't cast ballots based on issues such as covert aid to Nicaragua or the International Monetary Fund. They are interested in local issues.
''The newer Staten Islanders - who came from Brooklyn, moved to their Shangri-La - are very concerned about quality of life,'' Molinari says.
Derby Center, Vt.
The federal deficit, Central America, acid rain, and the dairy industry are the burning issues in Vermont.
During a full day of community meetings, beginning with a Pony Express delivery in the capital, Montpelier, and ending after 9 p.m. in Derby Center near the Canadian border, James M. Jeffords (R) the state's only congressman, listens to his constituents' concerns.
''We're all small businessmen, Jim, and it seems as if the federal government is in direct competition with us. Money is just too expensive. The economy looks as if it is getting better, but we can't expand.''
''Jim, we're all going broke,'' another businessman laments. ''Will the noise about the deficit be heard? Do you think it will really have an impact? Why can't the administration read the handwriting on the wall?''
Two hours and 75 miles of rolling green farmland later, another group has gathered to air their concerns in Lowell, a tiny farming and asbestos-mining community.
''Are we going to have a war in Central America, Jim?'' an elderly woman asks Congressman Jeffords.
''I don't think so,'' Jeffords answers, describing the current mood in Congress for her.
Howard Manosh, president of the Vermont Asbestos Group Inc., one of two US asbestos mines threatened with closure by new Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, speaks up: ''Jim, you've got to do some good hard work to see if the asbestos industry can survive, because there is little replacement for jobs in this area. We're the largest employer (150 employees) in this town and the new regulations will just about make it impossible for us to comply.''
Congressman Jeffords assures Mr. Manosh he will take a hard look at the various federal regulations.
''I want to know if we're working with the Maritime Provinces on acid rain,'' a dairy farmer queries. ''It seems we're getting beyond the point where something should be done. It seems this Reagan group from California thinks differently from the rest of the country.''
Jeffords tells the Lowell group that the coming election year and an early primary in Vermont will force a real response. ''We'll get 'em up here early on and nail 'em down and get a committment on that,'' he says.
Before Jeffords's day ends, he will have heard a common complaint from Vermont's dairy farmers about the 50-cent assessment on every hundred pounds of milk equivalent produced. ''So there's a surplus out West,'' says one farmer, ''but why should we be penalized for an extra 50 cents when we don't have enough milk here?''
Jeffords assures his listeners that he will attack these problems as soon as he returns to Washington.