The best way to catch up on what has been happening here in the capital while one was away on a reporting trip is to read The Congressional Record. Its pages reflect the activities and concerns of our lawmakers more sensitively than any other source.

And so it was, when I returned from nine days on the West Coast, that I turned eagerly to my favorite journal. It did not fail me.

By rough count, there were 33 Republicans praising the disappearance (however temporary) of any measurable inflation and 61 Democrats weeping tears (some of them crocodile) at the surge in unemployment.

There were none who even hinted that the latter calamity might be associated with the former blessing.

The man who came closest was Sen. Harry F. Byrd, the Virginia Independent, who is retiring this year. "Washington, D.C.--this Congress," he exclaimed, "is living in a fool's paradise." Byrd was speaking of the $1 trillion federal deficit, soon to be swelled by at least $100 billion.

Congress is concerned about the budget. In the seven Congressional Records I read on my return, at least 70 members urged that it be cut. They did not, however, do the dirty deed.

My favorite exchange on the subject involved Sens. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D- Mich.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.). Riegle began in classic fashion, saying "we need to move ahead here in the Senate with the issue of crafting a federal budget." He ended by accusing the Republicans of "exhuming Jimmy Carter to blame Carter for today's recession."

Said Dole: "I listened with interest, thinking I might hear something new, but, as usual, it is the same old speech. . .. Many in this body seem to be running against Herbert Hoover. Give us a few years to run against Jimmy Carter, and then we can balance things later on."

It would be unfair to leave you with the impression that Congress did nothing during this period. It celebrated or proclaimed Ground Zero Week, National Snowmobiling Month, Missing Children Day, Older Americans Month, National Orchestra Week, National Nurses Recognition Day, Clean Air Week--and the National Day of Prayer.

It commended Egypt and Israel for the turnover of the Sinai and Canada for getting its constitution back from Britain. It commended Britain for standing up to Argentina. It authorized a gold medal for retired Adm. Hyman Rickover, but only after inserting a chintzy proviso that Rickover's gold would have to be financed from the sale of souvenir bronze reproductions.

That kind of symbolic cost-consciousness is very popular in Congress right now, even when dealing with such emotionally charged topics as crime. Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) introduced the Omnibus Victims Protection Act of 1982, which he said "ensures that the federal government does all that is possible to assist crime victims, without additional federal expenditures and without infringing on the constitutional rights of defendants."

Twenty-four other senators found that promise irresistible--half of the cosponsors were men, like Heinz, whose terms expire this year.

Congress did not duck the big issues of war and peace. For three straight days, Heinz' colleague, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), tried to amend the defense authorization bill to say that "it is the sense of Congress" that the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union should meet "at the earliest possible date . . . to reduce the risk that nuclear war would occur."

You wouldn't think that would be controversial, but it seemed so to some powerful senators. They kept amending Specter's language and delaying the vote, until after I got back.

But other major defense questions were settled. After several hours of debate spread over two days, Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) was able to get Senate approval of an amendment that will strengthen America's fighting capacity and send a clear signal to the Soviets: it will prevent the transfer of control of the schools for overseas dependents' children from the Department of Defense to the Department of Education.

The best summary comment on what had been going on came from Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.). "I do not want to get into this guerrilla warfare," he said toward the end of the week I was away, "but I will tell you one thing: the public out there is laughing at this Congress."

Conte was protesting a move by a couple of fellow Republicans to outflank the Democrats and grab the credit for a budget-busting bill to bail out the ailing housing industry.

But what he said read like a general indictment of the members of Congress: "Everybody wants to have their day in court. They want their cake, and they want to eat it, too. Rome is burning, and they are playing their fiddles."

And proclaiming it National Music Appreciation Week.