At considerable unnecessary cost and for no practical reason, Uncle Sam still owns and operates two airports that are long overdue for expensive facelifts. And even if Dulles and National were left in their present inefficient condition, the tab for day-to-day operations of these two terminals doesn't exactly help efforts to reduce the federal deficit. That's why the Senate saw so much merit in a bipartisan bill to lease the two airports to a regional authority; and it's why a cross section of economy-minded members of the House is working for passage of the measure as soon as possible.

The fact that the Senate pored over this proposal before passing it by a 62-to-28 vote should help House members in their deliberations. Those who have taken a careful look at the measure have concluded that it makes good fiscal sense to place responsibility for National and Dulles in a public authority that would include representatives of Virginia, the District and Maryland as well as of the federal government. Supporters from both political parties also emphasize that this is no giveaway: the airports would be leased -- not sold -- to the authority for 50 years. After that, if the executive and legislative branches agreed, the airports could be sold -- at an additional sum -- to the authority.

In the meantime, the regional authority could finance improvements at both terminals by floating bonds. This could save the federal taxpayers an estimated $500 million, possibly more. It isn't a matter of elbowing out any other airport, either; all indications are that Maryland's excellent Baltimore-Washington International should continue to flourish. That would mean a modern, convenient set of air terminals serving the capital city, the Baltimore-Washington "common market," the traveling public and Congress. Delays only add to the federal costs, and failure to act this year could stick Uncle Sam with big bills for a long time. A House vote for the airports bill would be a welcome act for the taxpayers back home.