IT IS sometimes embarrassing to watch Congress in action. This week's ritual slaughter of the oil import fee was congressional mob psychology at its worst. Given the choice between truckling to the immediate cries of constituents who don't want to pay anything more for gasoline and taking a unified national step toward energy independence, 335 members of the House and 68 members of the Senate enthusiastically chose the easy answer. Within minutes of receiving the president's veto message, the House voted to override it and to eliminate the fee. The Senate followed suit on Friday. This action was not just wrongheaded. It was taken in a kind of carnival spirit expected from schoolchildren being released for the summer but not from an ostensibly serious body of legislators. r

Against this background, the courageous stand of 34 members of the House and 10 senators made a dramatic contrast. Reducing American dependence on foreign oil is of critical national importance, and raising the price of gasoline is the most immediately effective means now at hand to bring about such a reduction. The 44 legislators who went on record in favor of this step deserve to be congratulated. Except for those who are retiring, all of the House members and two of the senators -- Gary Hart of Colorado and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii -- are up for reelection this year. Several are from areas where heavy automobile use is a way of life. Several are facing tough battles for reelection, and may have voted against their own immediate political best interests.

Edmund Burke wrote, in 1774, to those who elected him, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." It is too bad that so few members of Congress have learned that lesson of representative democracy.