As Fritz Hollings says

IT'S as Sen. Ernest Hollings says: The American people are way out in front of Congress these days. They want Congress to do something about that immense budget deficit. And they're ready to take a little of the discomfort that Senator Hollings recommends to curb a deficit that is soaring into the trillions. In what is known in Washington as the hinterlands, I recently found a common theme among the people I talked with: that the Congress was spending all of its time on the Iran-contra hearings instead of doing the job it should be doing. ``We're worrying about the budget deficit and they're wallowing in these hearings'' is the way one farmer put it.

With the hearings all over the news media, it is little wonder that the average American is getting the impression Congress is absorbed in the Iran-contra affair. As Mr. Hollings told reporters over breakfast the other morning, there's a lot of truth in this perception.

Says Hollings: ``Congress keeps dancing around its responsibilities. It will get into anything to avoid inflicting the pain that the public must accept - in the way of taxes - in order to deal with that deficit.''

Hollings sees himself as Dr. Hollings. He's been talking ``responsibility'' and ``pain'' for several years now. As a Democratic presidential candidate in 1984 he called for a spending freeze and taxes. Right now he is considering another presidential bid. This time he is pushing a value-added tax that would be specifically directed to wiping out the budget deficit.

One reason Hollings did not make it as a candidate in 1984 was that the voters then did not want any financial discomfort. He thinks that now they are ready to make some sacrifice and face up to their responsibilities.

Here are some impressions I have gained from among folks away from the nation's capital:

The President still retains much of his popular support. The polls indicate this; but this was my opportunity to confirm the finding. Again and again I heard people assert that they thought Ronald Reagan ``had to know'' or ``should have known'' about the diversion to the contras of profits from arms to Iran, but these people then added that they still liked Mr. Reagan.

Why Reagan's popularity has withstood his recent adversity will be closely examined by historians. It may well be the truly unique aspect of his presidency.

Mid-America is talking of the prospect of a Democrat in the White House. People feel that the Iran-contra affair has, like Watergate, opened the door to a Democrat. Little is said of the Democrats having the ideas and programs America will soon need. Instead, the Democrats might take over in 1988 simply because of the Reagan administration's failures.

At a recent Monitor breakfast (the 2,000th since 1966), Bob Strauss, former head of the Democratic National Committee, criticized a view emerging in the press that the Democratic presidential candidates lack stature.

``You're being a little harsh, more than a little harsh, on the presidential candidates,'' he said. ``They've been described as midgets, pygmies, and nobodies. That is not right.''

Mr. Strauss's wisdom is generally hard to challenge. But I found very little knowledge about these candidates among people I talked with. One correspondent quipped: ``When I asked people about [Richard] Gephardt, they thought it was Gary [Hart] changing his name again.''

The electorate's criticism these days (some polls confirm this) focuses even more on Congress than on the President. The Democratic leadership's new budget proposal, which would raise nearly $20 billion through new taxes, isn't likely to change this public perception. It will likely be seen as doing little to deal realistically with the budget deficit.

But criticism of Congress is even broader. The public faults Congress for dancing away from all kinds of responsibilities, not just the budget deficit. The blue-collar worker, the farmer, the shopkeeper blames an inattentive Congress.

A presidential candidate who talks sense to the voters and recommends a course of sacrifice, including taxes, in order to balance the budget just might be what the public wants in a president this time around.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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