Forget about the budget and taxes, social security and arms for the Mideast. Congress and the President are about to do battle on a matter of real import: how handy it is for lawmakers to leave town.
Whether it's business, pleasure, or politics, members of Congress love to dash back to their home districts as often as possible, particularly during Washington's steamy summer months. Just across the Potomac River, National Airport's VIP parking slots generally are filled on weekends with autos bearing House or Senate tags.
In recent years this has created growing problems. The communities around aging National Airport are beset with noise and congestion. Two dozen miles to the west in a rural setting sits Dulles International Airport, much more modern and vastly underutilized.
The Reagan administration recently proposed Department of Transportation rules forcing more flights to use Dulles. Hearings begin next week, and you can be sure lawmakers will be here to keep an eye on this one.
Among the proposed changes, the number of flights per hour at National would be reduced from 40 to 37, jet flights would be banned between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. , and a cap would be placed on the number of passengers served annually at the closer airport.
The administration wants to scrap earlier plans to modernize National and expand its parking facilities. Instead, it wants to hasten highway construction out to Dulles and impose higher landing fees at National in order to subsidize public bus service to the newer airport.
Safety may also be a key issue later on as airlines shift to wide-body jets. There is much concern that the newer aircraft will not be able to land safely at National.
Local officials in the Virginia and Maryland towns around Washington are happy that some of the area's heavy air traffic may be moved away from their communities. So are those few members of Congress who represent these districts.
Set to fight the Reagan proposal are airlines and those many lawmakers for whom National has become a handy private airport of sorts.
To be fair, it's not just members of Congress who have a self-interest in favor of keeping the air traffic at closer-in National. Lobbyists, reporters, and other Washington hangers-on also like to be able to nip in and out of town quickly. (Perhaps it should also be noted that this reporter lives closer to Dulles than National. But that has nothing to do with why he is writing this story.)
In another town, the powers that be would likely pass some laws and issue some regulations, making the logical changes in favor of modernity and environmental awareness. But Washington is not any other town, as Jimmy Carter found when he tried -- and failed -- to change the airport situation.
Reagan has been much more forceful and successful in dealing with the establishment, however, and he may just be able to pull this one off, too. Tucked away in the new airport proposals is an item that would extend the limit on permissable nonstop flights to National from 650 miles out to 1,000 miles. That is most pleasing to such congressional powerhouses as Sen. Russell Long (D) of Louisiana, who for years has longed for nonstop flights between New Orleans and National Airport.
Still, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis acknowledges that the administration's hometown airport proposal will win only "with great difficulty."
Airlines would like more flights, local folks want fewer flights, and lawmakers want it easier -- not harder -- to get back home to Waukegan, or wherever.
"On this kind of issue, you can't win totally," says Secretary Lewis. "We recognize that if everybody's equally dissatisfied, we've probably done a reasonably good job."