QUIET ON THE SET, and welcome to Capitol Hill, the greatest weekday soap of them all. Here you'll find old money, family dynasties, power struggles, affairs of the heart and occasional Monkey Business, but never a parking space. You'll choke back tears as your reps dig deep into the pork barrel and send everything through the rhetorical grinder -- or is that the shredder? And you might even catch people, ahem, legislating.
When Congress reconvenes in two weeks, the summer crowds will be back in Iowa harvesting the corn, and it'll just be us and the zucchini glut. We're about to pass on some insiders' secrets for enjoying the chambers and committees in action. If you ever again doze off in the Senate gallery to the lullaby of a quorum call, it's your own fault.
"You have to take Congress for what it is," says Dave McConnell, who spends his weekdays prowling the marble halls of power for WTOP Radio. "TV and Hollywood political potboilers have given people a false impression of what to expect," he says. "The House tends to be a large, combative institution and the Senate is a very quiet, deliberative body. You'll see all kinds in the House, from geniuses to portly to you-really-wonder-how-they-got-there. The Senators always shake hands, a friendly pat on the shoulder. I don't mean to sound sexist but the Senate is still the clubby male bastion."
First, you need to pick up visitor's gallery passes in person at the office of your Representative or Senator (they're not available by mail or through district offices). The rules are simple, but keep in mind that kids under six are not permitted in the galleries, often forcing a separation of powers at the door: Mom goes in first, Dad waits his turn outside with a tot who is so quiet that he is the quietest thing in the building. Expect beefed-up security and lots of checkpoints, which are probably a good idea. Capitol security guard Maritza Rodriguez says she recently opened a tourist's briefcase and found a live animal ("It looked like a little panda").
The timing of your visit is important. Tuesdays and Thursdays are heavy days for legislative business. Try to be early. "In the House, members are allowed to take one minute to speak on any subject they choose," says McConnell. "Look for these colorful one-minute speeches to take place within the first hour of each day's session. They are informative, reflect the issues, and are often very funny."
McConnell, who has a fierce attachment to his workplace, foresees fireworks in the upcoming congressional agenda. "There will be major debate in the months and weeks hence," he points out. "Plan your visit for anything involving Star Wars, the Defense budget, the Bork nomination, campaign reform, Contra aid, the big appropriation bills, and maybe catastrophic health, on either floor but especially the Senate, since the House has already cleared most of these bills." (The Post runs a daily "Today in Congress" column, and McConnell's "Today on the Hill" is broadcast at 5:41 and 7:40 a.m. and 6:26 p.m. on WTOP 1500 AM.)
Other inside tips: "Watch out for filibusters on the Senate floor; they've been breaking out all year long and are very likely in the fall."
"And listen for a lot of flowery language," says McConnell. "Certain members are fond of making colorful floor speeches: two to listen for are Bob Walker (R-Pa.) and Jim Traficant (D-Ohio). Members like to say 'the gentlelady from . . .' or 'my distinguished colleague . . .' or 'my good friend.' There may be one or two real nerds in Congress, but it's hard to really dislike anyone. My God, they never say anything mean to each other, on the floor or off."
In the House chamber, don't look for any particular member to be seated in any particular space. On the Senate floor, the front desks denote seniority, but track down Senator Kennedy's desk in the back row. "He has chosen to stay back there," McConnell explains, "and it is a personal view of mine that there is now a kind of distinction to that back row, where the freshman Senator Joe Blow has to sit."
You have plenty of time. There is no formal adjournment date, but most Hill sources agree that the 100th Congress could get bogged down until Thanksgiving, this being a year without national elections.
Don't overlook the committee hearings, which are more intimate. "Obviously, you have to make a judgment call on these," McConnell advises. "Look for the Judiciary with Bork, and Schultz before Foreign Relations. Remember that the top aides of the Reagan administration will be coming up to testify before the committees this fall."
Here's a juicy idea if you want a close-up look: "Come up in the early evening when there is a final or crucial vote," says McConnell. "Plant yourself on the steps to the House entrance or the grassy areas of the House or Senate triangles at the east front of the Capitol, or at the 'trolley station' on the Senate side. You'll see them drive up in average American cars and stream inside to vote. Sometimes their wives will pull up and wait for them. It's always a fascinating thing to see."
Listen for the bells calling a vote, anytime between 9 and 5 weekdays. That's a good time to be in the tunnel from the Cannon building to the Capitol, or in the subway from the Rayburn building to the Capitol, where you'll spot members rushing to vote. "They'll kick you out of the train, but you can tell yourself, 'There's America's politicians,' " the correspondent says.
On weekdays, there is really no bad time to be on the Hill. "I think it's the greatest show in the world," says McConnell.
UNITED STATES CAPITOL --
The Capitol is at the east end of the Mall, between Constitution and Independence avenues. Free tours daily from 9 to 3:45, beginning in the Rotunda. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Information: 224-3121. Call the Special Services Office (224-4048) for tours for disabled and handicapped visitors. International visitors need special passes to the Senate gallery from the Office of the Sergeant at Arms, room S-321, in the Capitol. The Russell, Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings and the Longworth, Cannon and Rayburn House office buildings are open to the public from 7 to 7 weekdays.
Marianne Kyriakos last wrote for Weekend about local crab houses.