They wore faded jeans and running shoes - and blue pin-stripe suits. Some came from long careers in business or state government, others could blend in with the graduate students and never be noticed. They used phrases like ''emergency,'' ''national crisis,'' ''sense of urgency,'' but also bubbled with eagerness and optimism.
For more than half of the new members of Congress headed for Capitol Hill in January, early December meant six days of intensive back-to-school sessions at Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
The sessions go back to 1972, when four new congressmen were selected for a pilot program. Since 1976, the institute and its cosponsor, the Committee on House Administration of the US Congress, have invited congressional newcomers to the Harvard campus every two years. This year's group included 45 of the 81 new faces of 1983: 35 Democrats and 10 Republicans.
''The program personifies what the institute is all about,'' says director Jonathan Moore. ''It's interaction between the academic world and the people who are out there on the political firing line.'' Guest lecturers range from Harvard faculty members and other academic specialists to congressmen, Washington bureaucrats, and journalists. A day's schedule might mean zooming from the intricacies of Middle East politics to the rhetoric of arms-control to the mysteries of the economy.
The purpose of the Harvard sessions, says Mr. Moore, is not to teach Washington neophytes the nuts and bolts of forming a staff or lobbying for committee assignments. ''It is an introduction to substantive policy issues - with the emphasis on the underlying forces of history rather than the superficial trends appearing now as a way of helping the new member get grounded in these subjects and develop a position. We try to do some teaching, some educating.''
For Democrat Marsha Kaptur, who'll represent the Toledo area in northwest Ohio, the program was both inspiring and troubling. ''I'm impressed by my freshman class,'' she says. ''The quality is very high. My faith in the political process has been restored somewhat. They're a serious, hard-working group - doers who are not greatly interested in the glamour of the job.''
But although the speakers laid out the staggering problems facing the new Congress well, she says, ''It would have been more useful if they suggested specific options - then let us struggle with the political implications of those options.''
The congresswoman-elect faces some severe problems in her district, one of 26 that Democrats won back from Republicans. Unemployment hovers around 14 percent, soup lines have tripled in length from two years ago, and 5,000 of her constituents have had utilities shut off since March for nonpayment of bills. ''People want jobs,'' she says. ''They don't care about the academic issues of who's providing them.''
Such revelations have made Republican Ed Zschau, the new representative from California's ''Silicon Valley,'' more ''sensitive to problems,'' he says. The ''recession'' in his district has meant average growth rates of 20-25 percent for high-tech firms, in contrast last year's 80 percent growth.
Now his vision has been broadened, he says. ''Everyone elected for the first time is terribly optimistic. But (this group) also appreciates the magnitude of the problems.''
''I'm told the '80 class seemed more smug, that they were sure they had the answers,'' adds Bob Wise Jr., a new Democrat from West Virginia. ''I think this class has more of a sense of urgency, a belief that when we arrive in Washington we can't afford to get bogged down in the parliamentary processes.'' Some of his classmates were already forming ''action committees'' on various issues and meeting before classes.
For some, the gathering itself was as important as the lectures. ''We haven't let party relationships be the first thing that comes up in a conversation,'' says Mr. Wise. ''We've come to know each other as people and that's going to help us work together.''
''It's been an easy exchange, we've all made new friends,'' agrees Ohio's Kaptur. ''I have a strong interest in education and this has been what I would call a 'growth opportunity.' ''
But most important, she says, she now realizes ''with the dedicated people here, we're going to be able to help the country.''