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Summer madness in the Capitol calls for a little heat treatment

It was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen's complaint that the worst thing that ever happened to Congress was the invention of air conditioning.

Instead of fleeing the Calcutta-like heat of Washington for their home states, grumbled Dirksen, the Honorables loitered in town all summer stirring up mischief.

Ol' Everett had his quirks, but his Damn-the-AC Theory was profound wisdom.

For proof, the members' dizzy behavior this week showed they are in the grip of the Mid-Summer Madness. They should be hosed off and packed home in ice like frozen haddock.

Like the O. J. Simpson jury, congressfolk have been sequestered too long with large, noisy egos. Only a shrink could say which is the more torturous experience _ closeted for six months with Judge Ito or with Newt Gingrich.

A brief sample of their wackiness demonstrates the Dirksen Cut-Off-the-AC Axiom: That the Honorables' summer psychosis makes them a nuisance to themselves and the Republic.

Consider that big inside Capitol Hill story this week: "Discovery by Republican spies of scribbled notes from a secret Democratic strategy meeting." The notes _ I'm not inventing this _ were found on the counter of a liquor store called Neil's Outrageous.

To gleeful Republicans, the booze-store notes were the hottest coup since Gen. Robert E. Lee's battle plans for Antietam were found wrapped in cigar papers. But nobody answered the bigger mystery: When have Democrats ever had a strategy? And what is it?

Here's more proof of Summer Neurosis. Democrats were so mad because a traitor to their clan, Texan Greg Laughlin, switched parties that they took revenge _ again, I'm not inventing _ by making Congress stay up all night.

About 3 a.m., Rep. Harold Volkmer, D-Mo., asked "Are we mature people or small children?" (Wanna put it to a vote, congressman?)

Then at 5:20 a.m., a sleep-deprived Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., pronounced the debate one of Washington's finest hours. "This," he said proudly, "is what Congress is all about."

Unfortunately, he was right.

Not that the Senate hasn't succumbed to summer vapors. There was the neurological expertise of Sen. Trent Lott on a talk show: "The parties can't communicate because Republicans are from Mars, Democrats from Venus. It's like women who think with their right brains. Or something."

Women who heard Lott suggested he be sent to Pluto for a frontal lobotomy.

If you wanted to catch summer silliness in its most flourishing manifestation, though, you had to hear the House whomp its jingoistic drums for a constitutional amendment: Save Old Glory From Flag-Burners.

Never mind that flag-burning is hardly a national pestilence _ seven cases in two years of some geek flicking his Bic under the U.S. flag. Never mind that the Supreme Court ruled in 1989-90 that flag-burning, no matter how despicable, is protected political expression.

The Honorables, passions whipped up by polls, were in a fever to trash the Bill of Rights and whip up Fourth of July fireworks.

"Get a patriotic fire in your belly," thundered Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y. The cool-your-jets retort came from ex-Vietnam Marine Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md.: "Took me years to realize Vietnam protesters' right to be obnoxious was the essence of what we fought for. Freedom means the freedom to be stupid."

Then came low comedy. Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., ridiculed the proposal by taking from a cardboard box such red-white-and-blue geegaws as pantyhose, boxer shorts, neckties and picnic plates.

"Do you go to jail if your put spaghetti on it?" he asked. "That's not a flag, that's crap," roared Solomon.

Repeatedly Republican chauvinists shouted that 80 percent of polled Americans want Congress to stop flag desecration. But should we tinker with the Bill of Rights by poll? What if pollsters ask, "Would you trade freedom of speech for a flag law?"

Frothing with Independence Day zeal, the Honorables voted 312-120 (easily topping the two-thirds barrier) to solve the non-existent flag crisis. Members and gallery sitters cheered. You'd think the congressional heroes routed a mob of flag arsonists with fire hoses.

One hope for sanity is that the Senate will stop this Constitution trashing. Five years ago Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., a Vietnam medal winner, cooled similar flag ardor with a powerful outburst.

But Congress _ pajama parties, liquor-store spies, flag hypocrisy _ has spun over the edge.

Don't blame Newt, blame Summer Sappiness.

Ol' Everett was right.

Turn off the A.C. and ship 'em home before their brains fry.

Knight-Ridder Newspapers