WAHINGTON — The sudden panic and the political posturing over ''perks'' ought to offend the intelligence of even an angry public. President Bush is trying to exploit the situation by talking about ''the hopelessly tangled congressional web of PACs, perks, privileges, partnership and paralysis.'' House Speaker Tom Foley has lashed Mr. Bush as ''the king of perks'' and Vice President Quayle as the ''crown prince of perks.''
At some time someone with no personal or political ax to grind must tell the public which perks are in the national interest, and which are abuses by pols and bureaucrats blinded by the arrogance of power.
Let's start with the assumption that we don't want our president or vice president, our secretaries of state and defense, kidnaped or killed while waiting to board a shuttle flight to New York -- or getting ptomaine poisoning from eating coach food on almost any commercial airline. The cost of their using a small military plane on personal trips is not as great as auditors suggest. The military pilots get paid whether they are flying or sipping tea in the officer's club. Hundreds of planes just sit, depreciating. There is a cost of fuel and of possible hotel rooms for the pilots.
Key cabinet officers whose lives are at risk should pay first-class fares for themselves and their guests and be able to use a small government plane. To permit less is to tell the most able men and women in America, ''Stay the hell out of government.''
It makes sense that key leaders of the House and Senate should have chauffeured limousines. Who wants the Speaker or the Senate Majority Leader to leave a dinner at 11 p.m. and wander the streets of Washington to find his personal car to drive himself home? Denial of a chauffeured car isn't egalitarianism, it's an insult to those we've chosen to deal with our greatest problems.
It galls some air travelers to see parking spaces reserved for congressmen at National Airport here. Members of the House and Senate make commercial airline reservations without knowing when a crucial vote will take place. Who would ask them to vote, rush frantically to the airport trying to get to their districts in time for an important dinner speech, and find that only ''satellite parking'' is available?
President Bush must be able to use Air Force One or other government vehicles for trips personal or political. What must be guarded against are pretenses that what is obviously political is stamped ''official,'' freeing the Republican Party from a duty to pay for that trip. This gives the president public campaign funds, which he wants to deny to everyone else.
It would be foolhardy to take from congressmen their ''franking privilege'' -- the right to send mail to constituents and others at no cost. We need to hear more from our lawmakers, not less.
From the very beginnings of this republic it was recognized that ''perks'' is not in itself a dirty word. It describes special accommodations of honor and arrangements of convenience that are necessary to the efficient conduct of the public's business. We must not let some egregious, highly publicized abuses blind us to the truth that the fundamental concept of ''perks'' remains valid.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.