This is a hypothetical question. There is a shortage of flu vaccine and you have enough for only one person. You have to decide between a member of Congress and your mother. Who gets the shot?

The answer, of course, is your lawmaker. The reason is, you can't do without your legislator, but you can always get another mother.

I know it is only a hypothetical question and it would never happen in America. On the other hand, the Capitol's attending physician recommended that all 535 lawmakers and members of their staffs get shots.

While as a senior citizen you might have to stand in line for hours at a Wal-Mart to get the vaccine, all you have to do on the Hill is show your ID card -- and "zap" or "prick."

When questions arose, it was explained that politicians have to shake more hands than any other group of people and are more likely to catch the bug than forest rangers or fly fishermen. Thus, they would get sick and not be able to pass the laws the country so desperately needs.

Guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically say the vaccine should go to people younger than 2 and older than 65, as well as those in high-risk groups.

Now the "high-risk" category is the one Congress is banking on to defend why its members should get the shots. Many people consider their lawmakers at high risk, particularly when it comes to adding so much pork to their bills.

Don't think your government isn't facing up to the problem. It is suggesting you wash your hands as often as you can -- and shake as few hands as possible. We keep seeing the candidates out there shaking hands with the masses, but we don't see their handlers off-camera with a bucket of soap and water so they can wash their hands after each stop.

It is no secret that some people are steamed up about Congress jumping the line, or having no line at all.

One congressman said: "To refuse a flu shot when offered to you is the same thing as not taking a tax cut that your government wants to give you. Don't think it was easy for me to decide to get a shot. But then, I had to think of my constituents. If I didn't get the vaccine and got sick, I couldn't look after their interests."

What makes the playing field uneven is that only incumbents can get a flu shot. That puts their opponents at a disadvantage. It has become a major political issue. The incumbent is asking, "Do you want someone to represent you who is safe from disease, or someone who could wind up in the hospital at any time?"

The vaccine shortage did not hit people hard until they read how Congress is being given all it wants. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a doctor himself, told everyone on the Hill he thought it was a good idea to be vaccinated.

President Bush did not take his shot, but he was "working hard, very hard" on the problem. Finding flu vaccine when there's a shortage is "hard."

But Bush has a plan. He says we should stay the course and buy as much vaccine as we can from Canada.

What advice do I have for you, dear reader? Wash your hands.

(c) 2004, Tribune Media Services