Rome Is Closed This Month, but Don’t Tell Congress : Italy: U.S. lawmakers are flocking into town. They’ll find most of the country has gone fishin’.


Now begins that deadest time of the year for Italy, sizzling doldrums when the Eternal City belongs to tourists and those few Romans unable to contrive summer escape. And next Thursday, a de facto shutdown of government and business becomes official, with a midsummer national holiday that will also--unofficially but universally--consume next Friday, and the next weekend, and as much beyond as schedule and conscience permits.

In a country on vacation, people confer about the heat and the beach. Nobody but visiting Americans would willingly talk about well-trod national issues like drugs, politics and economics, the Persian Gulf, the European Community, the environment or health care. In August, in Italy, a fact is a foe. Life begins again in September.

That must be news on Capitol Hill, for into the Roman vacuum in coming days will march no fewer than 16 members of the U.S. Congress on five official fact-finding missions.

As the visiting legislators may discover, if Congress’ August recess is the best opportunity for official travel abroad, it is also the month, particularly in Western Europe, and especially in Italy, when entire countries have gone fishin’.


Last year, with official U.S. travel curtailed by the Persian Gulf crisis, 10 congressional delegations visited Italy, according to the U.S. Embassy here, which routinely arranges ground transportation, hotels and appointments for the lawmakers.

The five August delegations, all but one of them one-man visits, raises the 1991 total to 15, so far. The embassy terms them “normal fact-finding visits,” but there are not a lot of Italians lining up in August to chat with visiting congressmen.

Only hard advance work guarantees that, in addition to routine embassy briefings, the Americans will have Italian officials to meet with at this time of the year. And the encounters are apt to be less than satisfying for both.

Generally suspicious of anyone who works in August, the Italian officials whom visiting Americans encounter will likely have been dragooned to their desk and cajoled into neckties while their families--and their spirit--remain on the beach.


Besides, Rome’s brio is muted in August by the absence of its people. Most shops are closed; clerks in the open ones are apt to be as short-tempered as the sweating cabdrivers.

Waiters in August-defying restaurants tend to be quick counters. Only in the center of the old city and around St. Peter’s is there any semblance of Rome as a living city. But among the crowds there, Italian is often a minority language. Tourists reign, while congressmen work.

The first of the Americans to challenge Rome’s August do-nothing tradition is Rep. J. Roy Rowland (D-Ga.), who will be here on a two-day stop accompanied by his wife and a U.S. military escort officer, according to the embassy. The only doctor on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over some health care issues, Rowland is comparing national health insurance plans in Europe.

Rowland’s office says he arrived in London on Monday, went to Paris on Wednesday, then to Bucharest and Prague, followed by attendance at an AIDS conference at the University of Heidelberg, a side trip to Brussels to talk about Europe ’92, then to Frankfurt. Rowland is a member of the National Commission on AIDS and sponsored the law that set up the commission.


Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will visit Rome on a trip approved by Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the panel, an aide to Torricelli said.

His trip will combine official business of a day and a half in Rome to talk about Italian affairs, the Persian Gulf and the European Community, with a week’s personal trip to Sicily, where his father was born. The journey is partly a return visit following a stop in Washington by a group of Sicilian officials recently, the aide added.

Up from Sicily on Sunday night on a U.S. military plane comes a 12-member-plus-aides delegation headed by Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.

A committee spokesman said Rangel and the others discussed drugs and narcotics control in Pakistan, Syria and Israel before going to Italy. They will meet embassy anti-drug specialists and Italian police Monday before heading home Tuesday.


Traveling with Rangel are Reps. Frank J. Guarini (D-N.J.), Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), Paul E. Gillmor (R-Ohio), Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), Lawrence Coughlin (R-Pa.), ranking GOP member of the committee, Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.) and Thomas M. Foglietta (D-Pa.).

James Alexander, spokesman for the narcotics committee in Washington, said the group conferred with officials in Pakistan and Syria, which have major poppy-growing areas, about a revival of trafficking in heroin and opium. The stop in Italy was prompted by the increasing use of Europe as a transshipment route for drugs originating in South America, according to Alexander.

Rep. Richard Ray (D-Ga.), chairman of the environmental restoration panel of the House Armed Services Committee, comes to Rome on Italy’s midsummer holiday with a Navy escort officer as part of a two-week tour of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization installations to review the status of environmental problems there.

In a news release, Ray said: “As U.S. forces begin to withdraw from some of the bases in Europe, I want to make sure that we know the full extent of our environmental liability, so that we do not pay the European countries for environmental damage we did not cause.”


Ray also plans to visit abandoned Soviet military sites in Czechoslovakia and possibly in the former East Germany. “Congressman Ray will travel commercially as much as possible and will carry one professional staff member from the House Armed Services Committee,” his release said.

The last of Rome’s August congressional visitors is Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has scheduled a meeting or two on trade matters during an otherwise private two-week stay in Italy. Pressler’s office in Washington did not return four telephone calls seeking information about the official part of his trip.

Montalbano reported from Rome and Eaton from Washington.