Washington Dog Days

THESE are the days when Washington steams and wilts, when arguments and assertions and positioning - the infield work of politics - are largely abandoned in favor of a clearer, cooler atmosphere. Lawmakers go home to explain and apologize and gird themselves for the fall. If he can, the President too tries to take a break from the daily press of events. So far in 1989, it's been a mixed record for Congress and the White House: about a C+ overall. There have been some legislative accomplishments, some progress on the ``good government'' issue. But much has been left for after the summer break and beyond.

With the swift departure of Democrats Jim Wright and Tony Coelho, the rejection of Republican John Tower, the mounting HUD scandal left over from the Reagan administration, and who knows what else lurks under various rocks, it's clear that ethics is a bipartisan problem.

All the attention and house-cleaning is a good thing. But the root issues - greed and favoritism - are yet to be fully dealt with. The revolving door needs to be slowed, the influence of special interests curbed, the growing power of incumbency reversed. If these things aren't done, the only result will have been a few bruised politicians and more public cynicism.

In general, Congress and the White House are headed in the right direction on the environment, education, controlling drugs, health care, and help for the poor - those things where a nation as resourceful (and ``resource-full'') as the US should be able to see steady improvement.

But the biggest challenge here - fashioning a sound economic policy to pay for them - remains largely unmet. As White House budget director Richard Darman warned recently, there is still too much smoke and mirrors (as in the savings and loan bailout compromise), too much borrowing from the future.

Politically, Washington in mid-1989 runs with a fair amount of harmony. House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell are more willing to conciliate and compromise than their predecessors, as is George Bush. That's good. Because when the dog days of summer are over, there'll be plenty for them to wrestle with.

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