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When the nation is in mortal danger, it is the duty of every citizen to drop his can of beer and rise to its defense. In this spirit, I am offering a plan to end the mess in Washington.

This is a pay-disincentive program that promotes better government by inducing the members of Congress to work less or, in case of national emergency, to do nothing at all. The proposal is based on two principles. One is that the usefulness of politicians is inversely proportional to their activity. The second, derived from Newton's Law, holds that every congressional speech produces an equal amount of damage.

It follows that when Congress is in recess and the members are off junketing around the world, the government is safe. Order reigns. President Bush consults himself, finds he is wise beyond all measure and makes decisions without rebuke or reversal.

The history of the country shows that the bigger Congress grows, the more money it spends, and the more TV blah-blah it produces, the more it gums up the works.

It took only 91 part-time congressmen, working at $6 per diem, to start the nation. Since then, Congress has expanded its staff faster than the national debt, raised members' salaries to nearly $100,000, accepted millions in special-interest gratuities and passed enough meaningless laws to paper China's Great Wall.

Yet it can't even adopt a budget on time or do its duty on grubby issues such as the deficit.

The obvious conclusion is that a more inactive Congress would be in the national interest.

Indeed, it was the Founding Fathers' brilliant perception of this that inspired them to place the nation's capital in a swamp. The hot, humid air had the highly beneficial effect of driving lawmakers out of town most of the year.

Unfortunately, the value of the swamp was destroyed by air conditioning. A replacement strategy is urgently needed. My own patriotic response is a pay-disincentive program that would work like this:

Senators and congressmen would be given 60 percent of their salary for the first three months of the year, receive the remaining 40 percent in the second three months and get nothing in the third quarter. In the final quarter they would be required to refund part of their salary for any time worked in Washington. And during a national emergency, severe penalties would be imposed to induce complete inactivity.

Of course, the same disincentives would have to be extended to the congressional aides or string-pullers who manipulate our elected marionettes. Multiplying like locusts in recent years, they do fearsome damage. They, too, must be encouraged, like Bush, to take long vacations.

The effect would be salubrious. Best of all, the TV talk shows might run out of talk.

MICHAEL J. O'NEILL, former editor of the New York Daily News, is writing a book about mass communications.

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