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Feeling the Heat, Washington Skips August Break

This will be remembered as the August when Washington didn't go to the beach. Soon we will know whether having so much of officialdom on the job all summer makes a difference, and whether it's for the better.

Under normal circumstances, Congress and most of the political population flee the capital's most sodden season for resorts and recreation -- returning only after Labor Day. We saw this habit exert itself when the 9-11 commission released its report late in July and the first reaction on Capitol Hill was: "See you later."

Until overnight polls and media scorn forced them to reconsider, the House Republican leaders in particular presumed they could let August be August. The Speaker at first suggested that if the commissioners had wanted faster action, they should have delivered their recommendations in a more "timely fashion." And anyone who knows Congress knows that timely does not mean right before a recess (also known as a "district work period").

As it turned out, however, the pressure on Congress was intense enough that one Senate committee returned for a hearing on the 9-11 commission report a week after its release. And this week the House gets busy with its own full schedule of hearings. So vox populi, vox dei, after all.

It should be said that quite a few other members -- plus many staff and lobbyists -- are also grinding away this month on a tax bill that's made it through both chambers with little public notice. The tax-writing committees must now work out the great discrepancies between House and Senate versions of the bill. The original bill began as a remedy to a problem between the U.S. and its trading partners (the World Trade Organization sided with the other guys). But now the legislation is festooned with other matters, including favors for various interests, and its fate in the fall may depend on how many of the rough spots get smoothed out this month.

And it's not just Congress that's keeping at least some of its noses to the grindstone. The Homeland Security Department has announced it's learned that al Qaeda is targeting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for major terror attacks that could be imminent. Whatever effect these threats may be having on financial institutions elsewhere (notably Wall Street), they will only make official Washington more likely to stay on the job -- not less. In fact, when the threats were made public over the weekend, a lot of the locals just shrugged, grunted and asked how it would affect their commute on Monday.

Even the White House itself is in full gear. Between the fresh warnings of terrorism and the unexpectedly strong challenge issued by the 9-11 commission, there's an unusually heavy burden of pressing national business to bear right now -- especially given the calendar. And that's on top of the regular run of Iraq bombings, softening economic statistics and thorny legal matters to attend to.

So President Bush probably would not be decamping for the lengthy hiatus on his Texas ranch that he would like to have this time of year. And that would be true even if he did not have to spend days and weeks pounding the swing states between now and the Republican National Convention in New York City.

Things are still busy over at John Kerry's headquarters, too, as the Massachusetts senator taking on the president this fall will get little down time between the conventions. Having come bounceless out of Boston, the ticket of Kerry and fellow senator John Edwards of North Carolina must campaign fiercely, as if they had only days left to Election Day.

Neither side in this presidential race can afford to appear complacent, even in this month when normal people normally don't care.

In the end, you have to wonder how much better off the nation will be for all these important people having had such an arduous August. We presume we are in fact safer for the labors of our huge and growing homeland security sector. And the 9-11 commission report should be taken more seriously in the current mood of urgency than it would have been if the first hearing were not convened until autumn.

But we have no guarantee that trimming the capital's time off will accomplish anything of great value in the end. It merely spares public figures the acute consequences they would suffer if bad things happened while they are away from their posts.

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Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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