'Twas the break before Christmas, and all through the House (and Senate), not a representative or senator was supposed to be stirring. At least that was the plan. Congress was supposed to come closer to the pipedream of Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. to reestablish a ''citizen legislature,'' where lawmakers spend most of their time back home with the folks.
The dream almost came true, as the legislature broke early for the year, freeing members to vacate Washington for nine weeks, until January 23. But something went wrong. The lawmakers are still here.
You see them in the hallways and restaurants of Capitol Hill. They are calling briefings and hearings. A marine and fisheries subcommittee hearing last week on hazardous waste in oceans drew a surprising eight subcommittee members and a crowd that spilled out into the hall.
In a House barbershop, one barber says he hasn't seen so many members in town during a recess in his 21 years on Capitol Hill.
A check of more than 20 representatives and senators confirmed that while they are returning for visits with constituents, most are also spending about half the break in the capital.
''There are quite a number here,'' says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D), who has already gone home to Texas and is back at his Washington office ''catching up on paperwork'' and working on his Spanish lessons.
Even Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R) of Minnesota, who is up for reelection next year , has spent most of the break in Washington, dressed in his recess uniform of a plaid lumberjack shirt. He has been to Minnesota for only two days.
''This is the last chance to rest and take it easy,'' says his spokesman, before the onset of the campaign. The senator will take a three-week family vacation to his condominium in Vale, Colo., at Christmas.
Not everyone is taking it easy over the recess, however. Sen. Jesse Helms (R) took off for his North Carolina home immediately after Congress adjourned. The leader of the New Right, behind by 10 points in his reelection drive, according to Democratic polling, has a full campaign schedule in North Carolina. He returned to Washington for only one afternoon, when he urged the President to sign a farm bill benefiting tobacco farmers, a large number of whom live in his state.
A few others are also ensconced in their districts for the duration. Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R) left Southern California right after the Nov. 18 adjournment and won't be back until Congress reconvenes. ''That's what you do when you go on vacation - you go home,'' her Washington office reports.
That view appears to be a minority one. Members and their staffs point out that during the holiday season, constituents' thoughts are far from politics. One member joked that his constituents don't want to hear from him now, except for the occasional ribbon-cutting ceremony.
A few members are on congressional trips abroad to the Caribbean and Central America. But more are right here.
''I just try to clean up my desk and do some planning for the next session,'' says Rep. Donald J. Pease (D) of Ohio, back from two weeks of travel in his district.
''I don't understand how members can not spend time in Washington. I'm legislation-oriented, and you can't (work on legislation) from the district, and you cannot do it well when Congress is in session.''
''I view these weeks we have off as precious time to do a little research and think about long-range problems,'' says Mr. Pease.
A Senate aide who has worked on Capitol Hill since 1960 applauds the long recess, recalling the era when Congress finished its work before August and left town.
''There's a case to be made for spending time on Main Street, USA,'' says the aide. But he adds that he's spotted a ''fair number'' of members in the Capitol.