AS WE ALL know, Mikhail Gorbachev was not allowed to address a joint session of Congress. It was proposed, but he was disinvited after several of our more hairy-chested patriots promised to create a disturbance on the floor of the House of Representatives if the Bolshevik were to mount the podium.

You have only to think what the reaction of these primitives would be if Ronald Reagan were to be so slighted by the Kremlin. The Soviets were miffed. A leading political commentator, Tomas Kolesnichenko, wrote in Pravda that the inhospitable lawmakers "were afraid to allow the Soviet leader to openly address the American public because he is a skillful speaker."

But it is, to be realistic about it, no great loss. We have heard the general secretary on an NBC interview and we have been exposed to his views on arms control, communism and Afghanistan. We have seen his animated un-Slavic face, his lively eyes, his unthreatening smile. We know we won't get him mixed up with Brezhnev.

Even so, he should go to Congress while he is here. Ideally, he should be taken to a New England town meeting to see how democracy functions, but he is on a tight schedule, so the House of Representatives will have to do. The Senate takes itself more seriously, but it is hard to get a quorum there, and the members are so used to reading speeches and hurrying out of the chamber that they might not be able to stage a show debate.

Gorbachev would not need to go on the floor. He could watch the proceedings from the gallery. He seems to be genuinely interested in processes, and he might get an idea of how we govern ourselves. He might be a little bemused to see so many men and women milling about in a carefree fashion and shaking each others' hands so frequently and feelingly when they see each other every day, but the contrast with the Politburo would be instructive for him. He could have trouble hearing. The conversational buzz can be deafening, and nobody pays any attention to the presiding officer when he bangs the gavel and demands, "The House will be in order."

Some people think that seeing the living results of free elections in full cry is not something that we should invite strangers to witness. If he was there during a morning hour when the right-wingers were talking about the Red menace, he might think he would have no choice but to declare war. But democracy is a gamble, and we should risk it.

It's too bad Gorbachev couldn't have been here for the votes on the Continuing Resolution last Thursday. Maybe he would have found it shocking that so many laughing, chatting, strolling people were passing a bill which contained $500 billion dollars, affected millions of lives and authorized everything from new freeways to troop strength.

That's how we do things here. It's casual, even messy. If he wants to see how tedious it can all be, he should go to a committee hearing.

Say he had been at a markup of the product-liability bill by the subcommittee on commerce, consumer protection and competitiveness. He would have heard Rep. Don Ritter (R-Pa.) importuning Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to drop the word "pure" from an amendment.

The issue pits Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the formidable chairman of the full House Commerce Committee, against Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate whose likes would not be tolerated for 10 seconds in the new glasnost.

No, on second thought, explaining it all would be too much for the interpreter.

The general secretary should go to the gallery.

Gorbachev should have been there when the House passed, along with everything else, an amendment by Rep. Ed Roybal (D-Calif.), who wants to treat immigrants decently. Roybal has noticed that illegal aliens were not applying for the amnesty program for fear of losing family members who were not here at the designated deadline. He proposes to have the legality extended to the immediate family.

Our dilemma is that we can't keep people out. Gorbachev's is that he can't keep them in. An embarrassing number of Russians wish to leave -- most conspicuously, some 380,000 Jews. Then there are the left-behind spouses who offended the Kremlin by marrying foreigners, and relatives of those who have been permitted to go. Gorbachev understands that life is hard in the workers' paradise, and is pushing perestroika (restructuring) so things will be different. Meanwhile the exits are locked.

It is Soviet dogma that people who are guaranteed jobs, four walls and pensions are simply trashing socialism. Besides if they let the Jews out, others would clamor to follow. Nobody is trying to get in.

People risk their lives to get here, go underground to stay. The Cuban prisoners in two U.S. jails said they would rather stay here behind bars than go home to Castro.

Gorbachev is too smart not to know all this.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.