Sheep often confuse the butcher for the shepherd and go trotting off to doom without a thought in the world.

But voters, who are equally prone to entrusting government to unsuitable persons, have a right to be startled when it turns out some yo-yo has stood there with his bald face hanging out, drooling for somebody to give him a bribe.

Sometimes there is an excuse. The bribe didn't actually buy anything.

This is ingenious reasoning. Like the whores who merely rob or maim their clients but never do anything naughty in bed.

Now the question before us, needless to say, is not whether politicians may turn into crooks (for all men are created equal in their propensity to steal if not actively prevented from it) but what to do with them when proved guilty.

Congress itself, if I may say so with all respect, has never quite known what to do in such high integrity, so unfamiliar with the vulgarity of money changing hands, that it does not really know how such things can be. Sometimes there are long anguished debates, whether it is too severe a thing to pass a resolution suggesting the criminal has erred somewhat.

In a very few cases in the past, Congress has even gone so far as to forbid an offender to sit with noble congressmen in the Capitol. Though almost everyone feels this is carrying punishment a bit far.

The punishment should fit the crime, and the clever Persians of ancient times had just the thing:

The offender was marched into a brick oven, the door filled with masonry and the heat turned on, low, and increased very gradually.

Now a lawyer I know tells me he has a residual doubt about this. I need hardly point out, I suppose, that lawyers never like to assent too quickly to anything that might (if stretched out and wherefored) provide eight profitable years. The Persian solution, he thinks, might be construed as "cruel and unusual."

Nonsense. We can ignore "cruel" to begin with. Running a murderer through six years of courts back and forth and death-row appeals and so on is not "cruel" as far as the law is concerned, so there is no way the Persian method could be called cruel.

As for "unusual," it would not be unusual at all if it were universal and inevitable. As it would be if there were true justice in the world.

As far as that goes, it need not even be called punishment. It could be called the Betty Furnace Award for Consuming.

But what of the cases in which the offender pleads that yes, he did take a few hundred thousand as a bribe, but never intended to deliver the goods?

No problem. Leave a six-inch hole in the furnace and limit the temperature to 480 degrees, maximum.

Now here is something touchy: What if the offender were from some generally deprived minority? Should he be held to the same standards as a government official who grew up with every advantage, every break in life?

I would be inclined to be more lenient to those who never attended school, who never earned more than $2,750 a year (before arriving at the public trough) or whose wretched parents never let them have a dog.

But that would be opening a can of worms. Better to have the law uniform for all government officials, on the fiction that they are all presumed to be up to the American average.

It would be urgent for this sensible law to be limited to the abuse it is intended to correct. It would be wrong for it to be widely extended to (for example) legitimate lobbying. Lawyers could earn their keep devising language that would apply to bald bribery but not to active response to organize dairy, oil, publishing and other good interests.

Another thing: The wives or husbands of offenders should share the same fate s the offender, and so should all blood relatives up to (but not including) first cousins.

This would spare the nation a lot of drivel, that the jackass crook was not as bad as pictured.

Even more importantly, it would keep a certain number of potential crooks out of Congress to begin with. If I knew my brother, say, were running for Congress and if I knew he had a knack for robbing people blind, and if I knew that I would join him in the brick kiln when he was caught, I might expend some effort to keep him from running in the first place. Even families who care little for the integrity of Congress might care something for their own hides, and for their probable fate if Uncle Willy ever got to Congress.

A lawyer (again sensing profitable litigation) might quibble that this would not be fair to innocent relatives.

Perhaps not. Still, a law need not be flawless to be excellent.

In general I think most of us oppose capital punishment on the grounds it has a coarsening and corrupting influence on us as ordinary citizens.

But this would not be capital punishment, but a Consuming Award. Earned, after all, by great and persistent effort. Well deserved and in most cases, we may well suspect, long overdue.