All Is Quiet on the (Official) Washington Front

IN official Washington the sound of August is silence. The White House is silent. Even the buzzing in the first-floor briefing room has quieted. Washington's first citizen is in Kennebunkport, Maine, until Labor Day. Reporters and the daily morning press briefing have gone there, too. The Supreme Court is silent, out of session as usual every summer until the first Monday of October.

Even Capitol Hill, where the cumulative volume of spoken words normally surpasses the decibel level of a jet engine, is virtually silent.

The great halls of the Senate and House of Representatives, which ring with the sound of congressmen's voices much of the year, are empty. Most of these congressmen are home now, on a month-long vacation.

Muffled noises do emanate softly from behind the scenes, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere: Washington has not quite come to a complete stop.

Down an echoing marble corridor in Room 140 of the Cannon Office Building, the staff of the US Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care prepares for several hearings on health and insurance, to be sprinkled over the next few weeks.

Normally the halls of the Capitol building and the six main congressional office buildings reverberate with the footfalls of members of Congress, staff aides, visitors, lobbyists, and tourists. But on a recent day a reporter walking along the long Cannon corridor heard only one set of footsteps - his own. (However, this remains the season for tourists in the Capitol, where they usually come in full force.)

In the downtown business district, representatives of business groups discuss with a handful of reporters the changes Congress recently has made in proposals to reform the law known as ``Section 89.''

Originally the law was intended to increase the number of Americans who obtain health-care insurance through their place of business. But the law threatens to decrease rather than increase the number; business groups are trying to have it changed in ways that would be less onerous to employers.

Not long after Labor Day, when the two houses of Congress return from vacation, they will likely try to figure out how to reconcile their competing versions of reform.

One organization that continues to operate is the State Department. Washington and Paris may largely empty out in August, but much of the world whirls on anyway. State Department spokesmen iterate the American response to current world events, from the new noncommunist government in Poland to South Africa's changed political leadership.

State Department officials may have to tough out August in their intriguingly named section of Washington, Foggy Bottom. But for much of officialdom, this is the month to follow in the century-old footsteps of President Grover Cleveland and other Washingtonians of the late Victorian era, and get out of town.

Where they went used to be country. Now it's inner suburbia: northwest to Cleveland Park, (named after guess who and now an official part of Washington) and west across the Potomac River to the nearest reaches of Arlington, Va.

Nowadays Washingtonians flee far away: to New England beaches, the woodsy Pacific Northwest, even Europe. What do they like about their vacation spots? Peace and quiet, they say. Because they are gone, guess what we who remain have? Peace and quiet.

Across the US ``Silent Night'' may be heard in December. But in Washington, silent days are heard in August.

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