Washington's on vacation -- but work goes on

Washington does not suffer vacations easily. Haven for overachievers, the nation's capital still shows a tension between letting go and hanging tough when the official calendar runs blank.

Not even President Reagan's example of vacationing on the opposite coast with a resolve and lack of apology rare among recent chiefs of state and Congress's deserved recess after its tax and budget overhaul have put Washington at ease during August's dog days.

A Monitor check of a dozen Washington offices, in government and out, found staffs handicapped by a compulsion to get vacations out of the way while still cracking to prepare for the post Labor Day push.

In one of the boldest moves to clear the calendar of off-time, the American Civil Liberties Union put their lawyers and lobbyists on holiday here together. The ACLU has plenty to anticipate in the fall, with abortion and other issues slated for Capitol Hill.

But for the ACLU's liberal sympathizers at the Americans for Democratic Action, no truce with summer was reached. "It's a lull publicly," says Leon Shull, ADA executive director. "But we're mainly getting ready for the next fray. We're putting together an analysis of the tax and budget policy, and also what current services would cost in '82, '83, '84. We're going to emphasize the inequities of the tax program."

Ron Nessen, President Ford's spokesman, admires the way Mr. Reagan has broken from the Washington model of a perpetually working executive.

"The Reagan people are a lot more relaxed about saying, 'Hey, this guy's on vacation, let him relax,'" Mr. Nessen says. "We were overly sensitive to portray Ford as a workingm president. In '75, Ford's Easter vacation in Palm Springs came right in the middle of the North Vietnamese drive into Vietnam. I got questions every day, 'How could he play golf while Vietnam is burning?' "

There may be an institutional recess in Washington, Nessen observes, but the professional support system in the city continues apace. Nessen now is a public-affairs consultant for the firm of Marston and Rothenberg.

"There's an awful lot of striving here," Nessen says of Washington, "a lot of good people striving. When I was at NBC and UPI, I found a compulsion to find stories even in August."

At the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where Reagan hyper-achiever David A. Stockman holes up, they even work weekends in August.

"It's half and half here," reported an OMB spokesman of the work staff. "A couple of secretaries and our public-affairs director are gone for a few days. For our upper echelon -- Mr. Stockman and others -- it's business as usual. . . ."

At the White House's National Security Council office, daily briefings still have to be turned out for the vacationing President's perusal. And NSC aides joined other White House staff members this week at the West Coast presidential retreat.

For Congress, too, a recess does not quite mean what it suggests to the public.

"We're catching up with our mail backlog, carrying on with our regular constituent casework," says Peg O'Loughlin, spokeswoman for Rep. Donald Pease (D) of Ohio.

"I thought when I came here a congressman's staff would be playing tennis, sipping lemonade, when Congress was on recess. It's not that way at all."

Summer is little better for the House and Senate staffs back home in the districts. For instance, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan gathered the workers from his six offices around Michigan at a Walloon Lake resort. In a weekend retreat they held meetings on such peculiarly Washington leisure topics as casework and community development.

The think tanks do better. James Farrell, Brookings Institution information director, says Washington scholars take August vacations "not because of any academic cycle, but because August is such a beastly month in Washington."

Meanwhile, at the Department of Transportation extra workers have been brought in to help the agency get through the air controllers strike. And at the National Capitol YMCA, the joggers dutifully record their miles and the swimmers their laps.

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