Some better uses for Washington

We have here in Washington, D.C., a perfectly good but badly underutilized capital city.

Maybe the Iraqis could use it while they sort themselves out. It’s safer than Baghdad, there’s security everywhere; the bars and restaurants are better, there’s a handsome presidential palace whose principal occupant is gone about a fourth of the time, it has a beautiful capitol building that’s really only used every other day, and plenty of commodious office buildings.

Everything you need to run a country because, heaven knows, our government isn’t using it. Do you ever get the feeling that no one is in charge, that no one has his hands on the levers of power? You’re right. It’s like most of the time there’s no one here.

George W. Bush is the most absentee president we’ve ever had, surpassing in five years a record for relaxing at his ranch _ 335 days _ that took the previous holder, Ronald Reagan, eight years to achieve. He was there for Thanksgiving; he’s going back for Christmas.

And even when Bush is here, he’s not really here. He spent last weekend at Camp David in Maryland, came back to town, and then almost immediately left to do a speech in Kernersville, N.C.

Dick Cheney seems to spend most of his time in hiding. It’s December 2005: Do you know where your vice president is? We see him on TV occasionally, denouncing Democrats before a select, friendly audience, but he could be anywhere _ on a CIA soundstage in Rio or on the Riviera. (There’s no law that says our secret hellholes have to be located in one.)

Of the major Cabinet posts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels all the time; she’s rarely in Washington. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is holed up at the Pentagon, which is in Virginia, anyway. And the White House has made Treasury Secretary John Snow invisible; he could be anywhere.

Congress has also made itself scarce. As of Wednesday, the 341st day of the year, the House had been in session 133 days, the Senate 144. The House got back from its Thanksgiving recess on Tuesday; the Senate doesn’t get back until Monday. And then lawmakers are shooting to adjourn by Dec. 20. Not surprisingly, they’re behind on a lot of legislation.

The new year won’t exactly begin on a killing pace, either. Congress will come back at the end of January for the president’s State of the Union address, but then knock off again until mid-February.

House Republicans are missing their driving dynamo, Rep. Tom DeLay, who was forced to step down as majority leader after being indicted back home in Texas. Typically for Washington, a vacuum forced its way in where none had existed, and the Republicans said they were in no hurry to replace DeLay.

DeLay won’t be around much in any case if he heeds the advice in The Wall Street Journal, which counseled him to concentrate on Texas, where he faces only a modest scandal, rather than stay in Washington, where he faces a really big one.

There may be Democrats around, but unless the Republicans bring them up you never hear about them. For all we in the capital know, the Democratic Party may exist only in the fevered minds of right-wing talk-show hosts.

Washington has been curiously quiet, perhaps because the relentless scrutiny of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has stilled the ordinary daily schmoozing between press and officialdom by which progress is chronicled. Maybe there’s a lot going on, just no one to talk or write about it.

But this week there was another sinister omen. Washington had a rush-hour snowstorm, for us a real blizzard _ of 4 inches, drifting up to 6 inches. And there was no traffic jam! This is unheard of, and it suggests that not only the leaders are slipping out of town, so are the bureaucrats.

It’s all very scary.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)