WHY DOES Congress bother with hearings anymore? By now, members of Congress could just as easily stay home in Sioux City or Seattle and conduct their business via computer modem. In fact, the rest of us would probably be better off if they did.

Certainly the members would have no problem. Do they need a report on food-stamp use in the 100 largest metropolitan areas? Press a button or two and zap!, they've got it, complete with side-by-side comparison estimates from the Congressional Research Service, General Accounting Office, Urban Institute and Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. Is it time for an important vote? Two bells ring in the den at home, a red light flashes next to the PC and the member has an hour to hit a few more buttons and cast his or her vote. The remainder of the member's time could be spent cultivating petunias, meeting with constituents, giving speeches, playing golf, watching soaps or even engaging in serious study and reflection.

This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Though Congress seems busier than ever -- if you listen to the grumbling on Capitol Hill -- traditional fact-finding hearings are becoming an anachronism, and the result is that the legislative process is increasingly marked by gridlock.

During the 100th Congress (1987-88), for example, the House met on 298 days and the Senate on 307. Congressional committees and subcommittees held 7,563 hearings, briefings and other meetings, such as legislative conferences and "mark-up" sessions. Yet on Oct. 1, 1988, when the 1989 fiscal year began, Congress still hadn't compiled a federal budget -- a neat trick it repeated again in 1989 (indeed, in seven out of the last eight years).

There are those in Washington who feel Congress is being overwhelmed by the workload it has created for itself, that maybe the members need more help.

But Congress has already tried hiring more hands. Since John F. Kennedy moved from the Senate to the White House in 1961, the number of congressional staffers has more than doubled, increasing from 5,800 in Kennedy's day to 14,757 today, according to a recent tally. At the close of World War II, it cost approximately $54 million a year to run Congress; it now costs nearly $2 billion. One would think that with all this extra help Congress would have most of America's problems solved. Not quite. Of the 240 public laws passed during the first session of the present Congress, more than one-third (88) had nothing to do with problem-solving. They were commemorative bills celebrating such things as National Tap Dance Day, National Job Skills Week, Federal Employees Recognition Week and National Digestive Disease Awareness Month (May, if you're wondering). The 95th Congress, during the Carter era, passed just 34 such laws. The 100th Congress passed 258 of them.

All of this invites at least two important questions: If Congress doesn't take its work seriously, why should anybody else? And what is the purpose of all those hearings?

The truth is that congressional hearings serve a function very different from what the folks back home are led to believe. Much of America still has a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" image of Capitol Hill. People think Congress holds hearings to gather information, some of it highly technical or esoteric, from as many expert sources as possible, before making a legislative decision. Or, perhaps, to review current programs and see how well they're working; what Congress likes to call "oversight."

If only that were true. In the TV age, the purpose of congressional hearings too often is self-promotion: for members of Congress, lawyers and lobbyists, corporate executives, and the other Washington "players." In other words, hearings are often held to generate publicity.

And the surest way for a politician to get such publicity, short of running out of a burning building with a baby in his or her arms, is to latch on to a celebrity who is willing to champion a cause. What other plausible excuse would Congress have for sponsoring testimony by such well-known policy mavens as Meryl Streep, Valerie Harper, Cissy Spacek, Mary Tyler Moore, Morgan Fairchild, Jessica Lange, John Denver, Buster Douglas, Jane Fonda, Richard Gere and even members of the rock band The Grateful Dead?

Consider Meryl Streep's testimony on June 6, 1989, to a Senate Labor and Human Resources subcommittee. The subject was pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, prompted by the use of Alar. Said Streep, "I think the reason we have all been invited here, as I look around the room and I see so many experts, is we have been invited for what we do not know, which probably will fill the room. But actually, I do not mind representing the constituency of the great mass of uninformed, because I think what we do not know about this issue is the most alarming, and that is coming up over and over in what I have been hearing. What we don't know is a frightening chasm." Frightening indeed -- to apple growers, especially, who lost an estimated $100-110 million as a result of the Alar scare.

Streep's expertise, she told Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), consisted of "having been involved with this {Alar issue} for four months." This is expertise enough, apparently, to qualify celebrity activists to appear before Congress. Indeed, one wonders what special expertise brought members of The Grateful Dead before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in July 1989 to discuss the rain forests of Malaysia. What does Richard Gere know about Tibet, which he discussed before a congressional panel in 1988? How much did heavyweight boxing champion Buster Douglas add to the debate about the Low Income House Energy Assistance Program, when he addressed a Senate subcommittee about it? Did members of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee learn anything when Mary Tyler Moore read a poem about inhumane animal-trapping to one of its subcommittees? And what was gained when John Denver sang an "Ode to Alaskan Forests" to the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs? The "celebrity as moral authority" is part of a larger game Congress plays: stacking the hearing process to produce a desired result. The majority staff -- and this includes the Republicans when they controlled the Senate for six years during the Reagan administration -- has as its primary mission making the strongest case possible for whatever program or alleged "crisis" catches the fancy of the committee or subcommittee chairman. Fact gathering? Heck, if that's all they wanted, they already have the Congressional Budget Office, GAO, CRS, Office of Technology Assessment, private think tanks and other expert resources.

The real purpose, then, of many hearings is to thump for a cause. Furthermore, the people asked to testify almost always share a single point of view: that we face a dangerous crisis of some sort requiring federal intervention, and more likely than not, new government programs and lots of money. And by holding hearings, Congress tells America that, by God, it is doing something about it and intends to make sure even more innocent people aren't victimized.

Of course, another problem with the congressional hearing as publicity device is that everyone wants a piece of the action. Not surprisingly, therefore, more than 30 committees and subcommittees claim jurisdiction over the homeless issue. These include, to name just a few, the House Appropriations subcommittee on HUD and independent agencies; the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee; the Government Operations subcommittee on employment and housing; the Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on health and the environment; the Committee on Education and Labor; the Veterans Affairs Committee; the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on VA, HUD and independent agencies; the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; the Labor and Human Resources subcommittee on children, family, drugs and alcoholism; and on and on.

It's important to note that many of these same committees and subcommittees also are responsible for keeping an eye on HUD. But where were they during the past decade when the HUD scandal was unfolding? Perhaps they were posing with such media-attracting experts on the homeless as Valerie Harper.

If Congress wants to be taken seriously, it has to start acting seriously. A good place to start would be by reforming the committee and subcommittee structure to eliminate overlapping jurisdiction and by using committee and subcommittee hearings to explore the nuances of an issue, rather than to exploit the popularity of its Hollywood champions.

John Dutton is a research associate for the Heritage Foundation's U.S. Congress Assessment Project.