A NEW HAZARD FOR DEMOCRACY

A NEW HAZARD FOR DEMOCRACY

The U.S. Capitol is a dangerous place and not just because, as the old saying has it, no man's life or property is safe while Congress is in session.

This temple of democracy, this shrine of a free people, is a fire trap. The building manager, who goes by the grand title of architect of the Capitol, says so.Alan Hantman said that if the Capitol were subject to the local fire code the authorities would shut it down. And, he added, it would take 14 years to bring the Capitol up to code; in the meantime, the lawmakers, staff and tourists could be in some jeopardy.

The Capitol has always been haphazardly run. Part of that is the split jurisdiction. In 1825, the House side was run by the speaker; the Senate side by the president pro tem; and the Rotunda, being neutral ground, so to speak, was run by nobody. So, peddlers set up shop. There was also a 50-cent peep show.

In 1995 Congress, as part of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution, grandly decided to put itself under the same safety, health and environmental laws it had imposed on everyone else. Gingrich is gone, but Congress is stuck with the consequences.

Although the lawmakers privately wish they could, it would be too awkward to re-exempt themselves. Thus, we learn that the Capitol might burn down for the second time, since the British torched it in 1814.

To be fair to the architect's office, the Capitol is both historic and heavily used and closing it for renovations is probably out of the question.

Improvements - electric lights, steam heat, air conditioning - have been done on the fly, and while the Capitol has grand public rooms, much of the building is a warren of narrow passageways, hidden staircases, alcoves and odd-shaped rooms. The main tourist corridor connecting the House and Senate galleries is close to a secret passage.

In the remote reaches of the sub-basement or at the base of the great dome, it is easy to imagine someone secretly living there, sort of a Phantom of the Legislature, which might explain some of the weird provisions that mysteriously and inexplicably appear in spending bills late at night.

It's no particular secret that the Capitol has an ongoing pest problem, but these rats and mice have a 1793 genealogy, too, and probably chitter reverently about the Founding Rodents.

Hantman delicately raised another issue - his workers were denied access to certain areas. Tucked away behind unmarked doors in the recesses of the Capitol are so-called ''hideaway offices,'' a perk of the more senior lawmakers.

What goes on in these offices is a subject of ongoing gossip; President Clinton is far from the first public official to indulge in a little hanky-panky in the sacred precincts of the republic.

Although the Capitol has not escaped the oppressive security that has blighted life in Washington, it is still remarkably accessible to the public, as it should be in a democracy, and visitors are free to roam the adjacent House and Senate office buildings where the real work of Congress is done. The offices are all open, and visitors who drop by may not see their senator or House member personally but someone on the staff will talk to them.

The potential combustibility of the Capitol may not be all bad: If the lawmakers thought they were in imminent danger - and they obviously don't - it would give them an incentive to do their work quickly and clear out fast.