This week's comic relief: Senate and its parking lots

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

April 23, 1994|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WHITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Whenever things get grim here, we can depend on Congress to provide some comic relief. This time it was the Senate vote on Wednesday to preserve their free reserved parking spaces at National and Dulles airports.

The vote was 53-44, and most of the margin was provided by senators who are either retiring or not up for re-election this year and thus won't be obliged to explain themselves to their constituents. Indeed, of the 26 running this year, 22 voted to give up the cherished perk -- 124 spaces at National and 51 at Dulles for members of Congress, the Supreme Court and the diplomatic corps.

The lots are, of course, the most conveniently placed at the two airports and thus for years have been a source of constant irritation to other frequent fliers forced to hunt spaces elsewhere and schlep their luggage on shuttle buses. They also are symbols of the kind of institutional arrogance that has persuaded so many voters that Congress just doesn't get it.

That was never clearer than in the Senate decision to save the spaces. The fundamental premises of the argument were not just flawed but totally bizarre. The leading spokesman for the special parking was Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican who is retiring and thus is insulated from any wrath in the electorate.

He contended that senators work extraordinarily long days and often have to vote just minutes before they must race to the airport to fly home and meet their constituents. "What are you supposed to do?" he asked his colleagues, "Shoot out there in a pneumatic tube?"

This logic falls apart in several ways. First, the inference we are supposed to draw is that the Senate's work is so important it requires these extraordinary hours and that rush to the airport. But if parking spaces are to be assigned to some meritocracy, why wouldn't we set them aside for -- let's say -- scientists seeking a cure for cancer?

Then there is the question of what the Senate is doing in those long hours anyway. The usual response of any senator to a serious problem is to hold a public hearing and study it to death. The idea that they are always making life-or-death decisions there is laughable on its face. And even when there is an important question to be considered, how many of those long hours are devoted to political posturing? Does anyone really believe that most Senate debate is anything more than a rehash of well-established positions and rarely has the slightest effect on how the vote comes out?

Now there is the question of getting from Capitol Hill to the National Airport, a drive of 10 minutes at those late hours the senators are keeping and perhaps twice as long during rush hour. The trip can be made, moreover, by a taxicab just as quickly as by private car. And if you take a cab, they drop you right at your airline, even closer than those special lots.

Few senators or members of the House of Representatives find themselves obliged to take cabs very often. If you travel in and out of those airports all the time, what you see most often is the senator or representative being driven to a plane by a member of his or her taxpayer-paid staff. Who's kidding whom here?

The pressure to reduce congressional perks has been hard for the politicians to resist since the brouhaha over congressional salaries a few years ago. As a result, the free health clinics, free gymnasium privileges and cut-rate haircuts have been abandoned. But when it comes to those precious parking spaces, the Senate decided to draw the line.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, pointed out that the public users pay $26 a day for the prime spaces near the terminal and that a similar fee for the VIP lots would produce $1.6 million a year. But Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, countered that the costs of all those taxicabs would be $3 million and would be reimbursed to members.

The real point here, however, was that senators are getting fed up with all the carping and complaining about their insensitivity to the concerns of ordinary citizens. It's gotten so bad, said Danforth, "we've lost our sense of statesmanship."

But nobody's talking about statesmanship here. We're talking about something serious -- parking spaces. You could make a valid argument that members of Congress deserved those pay raises. But they don't deserve to be treated like Arab potentates. When they do things like this, they invite scorn and ridicule.

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