Duty, Honor, Party!

Do I have this right? If we just hold on a little longer in this crisis, the government might send us all on vacation?

Do your part, patriots: Book your tickets on Broadway. Waikiki, here we come.

Take that, Osama bin Laden. And you thought we were a feckless bunch. We're not turning our cheek. We're surely not turning tail. But we just might turn this crisis you wrought into a national beach party.

Ah yes, Congress is back at work.

After years of enduring balanced-budget resolutions and trying to live up to those campaign promises about frugality, after having labored so hard just to grab a little pork here and there when the appropriations pie was passed around-well, finally, Congress has rediscovered its mission. Look it up. U.S. Constitution, Section 8, Item 1: "Provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States."

This week, Congress took care of the first part, with unanimous Senate approval of a Pentagon budget that amounts to about $1,230 for every man, woman and child in the land. There's a big pay raise in there for the men and women who are headed off to battle.

But what are the rest of us to do? What do we get? What about our general welfare? Frankly, I haven't seen Congress in such a creative mood in a long time. Now that the call is on to stimulate the economy, there are no limits on ideas. While the Army sets sight on the Afghan mountains, the rest of us are being summoned to do our patriotic part and go on holiday. And some members of the House of Representatives stand ready to pay for it-allowing us to deduct air fare and hotel bills and who knows what else for our patriotic travels.

It will help the airlines. Hotel workers will get their jobs back. Restaurants will once again be so packed that our 7 o'clock dinner reservations won't be honored until 8:30 or so.

Is this a great country, or what?

During the Vietnam War, the government promised guns and butter. Now, it's guns and a week on Fifth Avenue.

Excuse me just a moment. Should we wonder if someone has been tampering with the water supply in the Capitol?

A tax break for vacations?

New York's Democratic Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney got the ball rolling by proposing a $500 "I Love NY Tax Deduction Act" for individuals who visit New York City, $1,000 for a family. On the other side of the nation, Hawaii's Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie jumped in to say he's looking at vacation tax deductions as a way to fill up Honolulu's beaches.

"This is strictly in relation to the Sept. 11 tragedy," Abercrombie told Richard Simon, my colleague here at The Times. "It's not us trying to come in and take advantage of the situation for a political agenda." Whew.

If I know my Congress, this could be the beginning of some serious horse trading. Take Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. He'll need to think fast to get this vacation subsidy to help the economy in his state. I did a quick survey of my friends here in California. I want to assure you that they are just as patriotic as anyone, but not one said Rapid City was a doable vacation spot, even in wartime. That's just a preliminary tally, I grant you, but it could be worrisome.

I'm sure, however, with its lock-step bipartisanship and renewed commitment to "the general welfare," Congress can work out the details to please everyone. Maybe it can throw in some walking-around money for people who choose unlikely vacation destinations, such as Pascagoula, Miss., where you can see a 70-ton shrimp boat and "floating museum" as well as the home office of Senate GOP leader Trent Lott.

Already, some members of Congress are exploring areas of compromise. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, for one, is taking the long view and wants the government to build a $9-billion rocket-train to whisk gamblers from Southern California to Las Vegas.

And for busy executives who cannot take vacations just yet, Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii wants to restore tax deductions for the three-martini lunch. After all, business executives deserve a little of this general welfare too, don't they?

I remember when the government used to warn us against offers like this. If it sounded too good to be true, it probably was. But that was then. This is war. So pack up. Get ready to do your duty.

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