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Congress Is in Abilene

IT was a boiling hot Sunday afternoon in dusty west Texas. Jerry B. Harvey and his family were sitting on the back porch sipping cold lemonade, a fan kicking the heat around them while they played very slow dominoes. When Harvey's father-in-law said, ``Let's get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria,'' Harvey was not excited. He thought, 53 dusty miles in an un-air-conditioned 1958 Buick? Heck, no.

But his wife said she liked the idea, as did his mother-in-law; so all of them piled in the Buick, thinking they all wanted to go. They endured the hot journey, ate the uninspired food at the cafeteria, headed back home, and arrived exhausted, twice as hot as before and three times as grumpy.

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Back on the porch, Harvey said dishonestly, ``It was a great trip, wasn't it?'' Silence. Then one by one they confessed they went to Abilene because everybody else said they wanted to go. They blamed each other for the miserable afternoon. This family incident serves as the basis for Harvey's recent book, ``The Abilene Paradox,'' one of those wonderfully glib business management books, this one suggesting that many weak-willed American managers are often on the hot road to Abilene because ``collective decisions lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do.''

Harvey's paradoxical twist on management is intriguing. He says: Don't think it's so hard to manage conflict when the king-size problem is really an inability to manage agreement. If members of an organization fail to ``accurately communicate their desires ... to one another,'' they are sending contrary signals which can become an ill-fated management consensus, a default. Hey, let's go to Abilene. (Oh, no, not Abilene!) Yeah, great, let's go!

Which brings me obliquely to the point of this column: The United States Congress has gone to Abilene on an old bus, has passed through Abilene, and is lost somewhere west of the city limits.

This fumbling congressional journey probably began about 35 years ago in the Eisenhower era, when the concept of politics as vapor took hold. Engagement with real issues gave way to collective abrogation, or in Harvey's words, ``an unwillingness to take risks.'' Somehow the meaningless labels ``liberal'' and ``conservative'' emerged like a full tank of gas. Congress could easily go to Abilene on these fumes, stay there for years, and fraternally deny they were there.

But they are there.

Once defined by writer Theodore White as a ``vast uncertainty,'' Congress has a truly embarrassing capacity to not manage itself ethically, financially, or morally while pretending it is. At the same time it has failed to provide landmark, bipartisan legislation on a continuing basis to help solve the growing problems of a troubled nation. They are our national paradox, needed but ineffectual, loud but mediocre.

``Maybe we're entering a new phase of government,'' said a young Daniel P. Moynihan (now US Senator Moynihan of New York) back in 1964 when he was assistant secretary of labor. ``Maybe the old legislative phase is coming to an end, the time when you passed a new law which set up a new bureau with a new appropriation to run new machinery. What lies ahead may be problems not answerable by law or by government at all.... ''

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It's time to get out of Abilene.

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