Even if they charged admission, Congress still would be the greatest show on earth: clowns, animals, magic acts, great ringmasters, high-wire stunts, hyperbole, pathos, joy.

The action is at its peak in all three rings when time is running out on another session and the lawmakers, lusting to leave, perform their tricks.

The 96th Congress is about to fold its big striped tent. Things are frantic. Bills that should have passed months ago rush through; others die. Rules are abandoned. Political favor and special-interest deals are dispensed like cotton candy.

Oil profits, in the words of Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-Ohio), apparently have become more important than blood for elderly sick people.

Outrageous idea? Look what they did last week, adopting the conference report -- the final agreement -- on the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1980.

The conferees, running with an idea propounded by Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) agreed without any hearings or public discussion to exempt all royalty owners from the first $1,000 of so-called "windfall profit" taxes.

To achieve the fiscal balance they needed, the conferees killed language that would have provided Medicare payment for the first three pints of blood required by ailing old folks.

"I attended almost all Ways and Means conference sessions, but I must confess that I do not know the details of what we have done . . . we have put 44,000 new words into the law . . . I think it is a very dangerous way to do the public business." Vanik said.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), 9 p.m. Thursday, adding his voice to the lamentations over departing House members: "The question that must not be raised is, will they miss us?"

Right below the painting of Charles Sumner, a long ago senator from Massachusetts, a squadron of news camera crews jammed a Capitol hallway awaiting Senate Democrats who were caucusing in a nearby room.

They lurched when a door opened. Bright lights flashed on. Out came Vice President Mondale, a hint of mist in slightly reddened eyes.

Mondale, a senator for a dozen years, had just said goodby to the men and the place he loves. Cassie Mackin of ABC Television led him gently through one of the nicest interviews of 1980.

About the election, he said the result was so decisive there was no point in replaying it. About the stalled fair-housing debate, he said, "I hope and pray this nation would never abandon its commitment to civil rights." About speculation that he might head the Democratic National Committee, he said "Thank you very much, Cassie,"

This is the family of Man -- I.

Sen. Jacob A. Javits (R-N.Y.), defeated for reelection, was made honorary chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for a day. Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho), defeated for reelection, authored the resolution.

The Family of Man -- II.

Sen. Milton R. Young (R-N.D.), retiring senior GOP member, was made honorary president pro tem of the Senate for a day.President pro tem Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), defeated for reelection, made his official car available to Young for the day.

The language of the Big Top is cloaked in euphemism. When plain, blunt, straight-talk is heard, ears perk up and eyes pop open.

Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) unloaded some rather unprecedented plain talk on a group of House members as they and Senate conferees were trying to agree on a public-buildings reform bill.

The conferees held a series of meetings, including three on Thursday, and made little progress. In brief, the Senate wanted to remove federal building construction from the pork barrel; the House didn't.

"The House committee orders up projects near and dear to it, usually for powerful chairmen," Simpson lectured the powerful chairmen, "and pulls strings and beats heads at the Geneal Services Administration.

"In this manner the public-buildings pork barrel has been controlled by a few on the House Public Works Committee. No wonder they are resistant to change."

Time after time, Simpson went on in that vein. The House conferees were stunned. In the end, Thursday night, Simpson turned out to be somewhat prophetic. The conference broke down in disagreement.

Simpson apologized roundly for his bluntness and sized up his prospects for someday landing a pet project in his own state: "I expect my sole product here will be one federally financed pesticide storage shed in Tugwater, Wyo." h

Sen. Moynihan, 5 p.m., to an aide asking about his evening schedule: "Tell her to cancel all meetings. Doesn't anyone understand what is going on?"

The Family of Man -- III.

"Together with the Joint Committee on the Library, I am pleased to extend an invitation to attend the Christmas Greens Exhibition at the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory . . ." -- George M. White, Capitol Architect.

Sen. James A. McClure will become Energy and National Resources Committee chairman next year. He's already trying to broaden his power base. c

McClure got an amendment added to the continuing appropriations resolution for 1981 giving himself veto power over decisions by the secretary of interior on additions to the wild and scenic rivers system. The rest of Congress and his committee would have no say.

The Idahoan apparently was moving to thwart the addition by Secretary Cecil D. Andrus of five northern California rivers to the system, which would prevent their being dammed.California Gov. Jerry Brown has asked for the wild and scenic designation. Big water users and developers in southern California oppose it.

Sen. Moynihan, 5:20 p.m., to his wife by telephone: "I'm never going to bring this up again on the Senate floor. Now tell me again how we are related to Sen. Milton Young. Milton's wife is . . ."

The truth will deliver us, it is said, but the truth is that truth is sometimes in short supply in these final days.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the tribute, eulogy, praise, encomia, for departing members.

No names need be mentioned here. But men who have been convicted of bribery were lauded as saints. Men who did little but funnel roads, dams and grants to their districts were called titans.

Through Friday, the House had set aside 30 hours of tributes to departing brothers and sisters, although not all that time actually was used. The Senate similarly paid homage to its departing members.

An interesting note: While there was a great rush to praise the departed, few members stayed around long enough to hear the rest after they had had their say.

A memorable (and truthful) line: Rep. John Seiberling (D-Ohio), noting the defeat of Rep. Bob Eckhardt (d-Tex.), said lightning always hits the tallest trees first.

The Family of Man -- IV .

"Members of the media covering the U.S. Senate are cordially invited to attend a Christmas reception in your honor hosted by Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The get-together will he held Friday . . . from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m."

Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) comes from another era. He is 79 and courtly. He was elected in 1947, the year the new senator-elect from Indiana, Dan Quayle, was born.

Behind his back, suave news reporters carp about his staunchness on military matters and his bows to the Pentagon as Armed Services Committee chairman. To his face, they become pussycats and forget hard questions.

After appropriations conferees worked out a 1981 defense spending bill, Stennis went up to the Senate press gallery to explain it. Pussycats curled at his feet and purred. Few hard questions.

Then someone asked him in detail the highlights of his career, as though he were leaving, which he is not. Stennis was taken aback and there was a long pause. He then launched into a delightful reverie.

When it was over, he went around the room, shaking hands with every reporter he could find. Nobody else does that.

The Family of Man -- V .

Black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, concerned about congressional moves against school busing, fair housing and voting rights, paid a social call Friday on Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Thurmond, who will soon become Senate Judiciary chairman, met with Jackson for 20 minutes, but refused to go outside his office to appear jointly before a gaggle of television network news crews.

Jackson said that Thurmond, a one-time diehard segregationist, seemed to be "more flexible on the civil rights issues than most people imagined."

The senator, meanwhile, was meeting in his office with black football star George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner from South Carolina. Only local photographers were allowed to record the occasion.

Voting bells rang. Thurmond came dashing out of his office and quickly outdistanced the pursuing national cameramen.