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Count on Washington to do nothing

Washington apparently has nothing to do but investigate itself. This is narcissistic, expensive and redundant. Reporters have already done a terrific job of exposing dirty money's effect on politics. Why do we need two Congressional committees spending millions to do it again?

All sentient humanity now knows that the stupendous cost of political campaigning has corrupted government all the way up to the White House. Why not move on to doing something about it?

The short answer is that the habit of not doing anything about anything vital has eaten into the Washington soul. Think of the things Washington is doing nothing about:

There are the vast wastelands called "inner cities," because delicacy forbids us to call them "places where we keep the great American failure out of sight."

Now and then some statesman resident in the Potomac suburbs wanders into one of these ghastly devastations, recoils in shock and fear and, if there is a reporter handy, declares, "Something must be done."

Would-be presidents once made ritualistic campaign appearances in the South Bronx to expose their humane tendencies. Once President Clinton even ventured a mile into "inner-city" Washington to declare himself on the side of the angels.

Nothing much is ever done. Nor do hardened political scholars expect anything to be done. Washington's habit is to not do anything.

What might be done? Well, there are those despised welfare clients who are now required to find work. Many live in "inner cities," where jobs tend not to be. Jobs tend to be out in the suburbs. How shall low-paid slum dwellers get to those jobs from "inner cities" with third-rate mass transit that doesn't reach the suburbs and, if it does, charges fares bottom dwellers can't afford?

The need for better mass transit is part of the "inner cities" problem, but the only transit Washington happily underwrites is that of car owners farther and farther from those "inner cities" via new highway construction. Washington loves driving. Government license plates should say "Drive Or Die."

There is also a transportation problem for small-town America. More and more small towns are bypassed by airlines and interstate bus service. It's hard to travel out there unless you're able to drive great distances.

Aren't small towns supposed to harbor the very essence of old-fashioned Americanism? If only for sentiment's sake, Washington might make an effort to prevent small-town people from going out of circulation like Indian-head nickels.

What? Get government involved in improving backwater America? Not these days. Washington still holds to the pernicious Reagan theory that "government is the problem," not a solution.

Does this explain why nobody in White House or Congress seems concerned that there are now more than 40-million Americans with no health insurance? These uninsured millions may be a problem, all right, but the going wisdom of Washington is that it would be worse if the government tried to get more people insured.

No wonder we're in for these expensive investigations of the squalor in which president and Congress get their campaign money. They will give us the illusion of something being done about limiting money's sordid power. Illusion is probably the best we can hope for.

With their philosophy that it's wise not to do anything about anything that looks like a problem, our pols need some reason _ some justification, for heaven's sake _ for not leaving their year-round air-conditioning and going back home. Investigations create illusions of vital doings going on.

Of course there also will be the usual bark-and-bite ritual between president and Congress about balancing the budget.

If they really wanted a balanced budget, they could simply add 25 cents to the gasoline tax and watch the billions roll in. Americans tolerate big increases in gasoline prices when created by the market and go right on buying bigger, thirstier gas-guzzlers. To balance the budget they would surely welcome a rise in the gas tax _ if a balanced budget is as dear to them as we are asked to believe.

Will our leaders take this easy way out? Don't hold your breath. It would be too much like doing something.

New York Times News Service