Washington — While their colleagues paced in front of the television election night to see if they still held their jobs, some members of Congress could go to bed early. They had already decided to give up their seats - often to write books, spend more time with their families, or just have more time for themselves. They include some of Capitol Hill's most famous and experienced lawmakers.
In interviews, five of the 25 ''voluntary'' retirees praise the rising breed of legislators as more capable and knowledgeable than their predecessors. But some of the departing members bemoan a slow and unwieldy House that seems to respond only to dire emergencies and a Senate that allows members to drone on for hours in an almost empty chamber.
Perhaps no one winces at the noncommunication of a Senate filibuster more than Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California, a semanticist by profession and one of the Senate's more colorful characters. He rode into Washington six years ago on a wave of popularity because, as president of San Francisco State College in 1968, he quelled student riots with a swift call to the police.
''In the Senate, the right to speak at length is protected with almost a holy zeal,'' he says. ''But the right to speak doesn't mean anything unless it's accompanied by listeners.''
''What happens when a filibuster goes on? All the senators leave,'' he says.
Senator Hayakawa recently played a key role in ending a filibuster of a proposed anti-abortion measure. The matter had tied up the Senate in knots for weeks, and in a surprise move, Hayakawa stood up and moved to table it. His motion passed by a bare majority.
Why did he, a staunch conservative and friend of anti-abortion leader Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, make that motion?
''That's very interesting,'' Hayakawa says. He explains that he is a member of the ''Steering Committee,'' a group of about 20 conservative Republican senators, including Senator Helms, their current chairman. Most are abortion foes, explains Hayakawa, but ''I'm not.''
The Steering Committee had decided that ''to escape defeat, they would sooner have it tabled,'' says the Californian. But none of the others was willing to make the tabling motion.
''I was one of their crowd, so they asked me to make it,'' he says. ''Of course, they all voted against me.''
''They gave me a little victory,'' he says, because they reasoned that ''if the wrong side's going to win, one of their group is going to have the victory.''
Such an event points out how senators can work together, holds Hayakawa. ''It shows how we work in the sense that there's no demand for an orthodoxy.''
The California senator clearly leaves the Senate reluctantly. ''I met a finer class of people than I ever met in academic life,'' he says. He praises his fellow lawmakers' flexibility and pragmatism.
A member might have a serious argument on the Senate floor with someone from the education committee, he says, and ''two days later you and he are working together on milk price supports.''
The former college president plans to write books on one of a dozen or more subjects he has an interest in.
Shirley Chisholm, the always outspoken and frequently unpredictable Brooklyn congresswoman, delivers a parting shot to the institution she leaves after 23 years. ''We're always reacting to emergencies,'' she says of the House, upbraiding her own Democratic Party for failing to come up with programs for jobs and housing until the last minute.
''What have we been doing all year?'' she asks.
Even with that critique, however, Representative Chisholm voices optimism about the House. Most promising of all, she says, is the fall of the old seniority system, by which veteran lawmakers had virtually all the power.
''No longer is longevity the sole and prime consideration'' for being chosen committee chairman, she says, because the members elect them.
Moreover, she remembers when committee chairmen could, merely on the basis of a personal feud, doom a proposed piece of legislation. ''They would use the symbol of thumbs down,'' she says, and the bill would be dead. It was ''autocratic and dictatorial.''
Congresswoman Chisholm wasted no time in her first term in challenging entrenched House procedures. When the leadership tried to put Mrs. Chisholm, a former educator, on the Agriculture Committee, she dared to denounce the move publicly and won a committee change. ''People told me I had committed political suicide,'' she says, adding, ''I'm still here.''
Mrs. Chisholm eventually rose to a seat on the powerful House Rules Committee , but she never moved into the center of congressional power.
''Women aren't part of the old-boy network,'' she says. ''They can't go into the men's bathroom where deals are made.''
But, ''We are now moving to establish a woman's political network. We're learning.'' She predicts some women now on Capitol Hill will rise to chairmanships in the House.
So why is she leaving? ''I want to spend some time with my husband. . . . I want to play my beautiful grand piano. . . . I want to be able to have the alternative to sleep later.
'Shirley Chisholm would like to have a little life of her own.''
Among those departing Capitol Hill, none have served as long or had more influence than the Democrat from Missouri, Richard Bolling. Although little known in the public at large, he has been toiling away behind the scenes with House speakers and US presidents for 30 years.
''I've had the privilege of being in the center of power since my third year (He began serving in the House in 1949),'' Representative Bolling said in an interview before a recent illness.
Although he never fulfilled his ambition to become speaker, he has been a mainstay of the House as chairman of the Rules Committee, the panel that controls the flow of bills to the House floor.
Looking back on the past 30 years, he says, ''There is a great deal of unhappiness about government in the country.'' The unhappiness began when the emerging middle class of the 1950s and '60s ''began to resent the level of taxing to help the poor,'' he says, and has been fanned by the ''confusion'' of competing and overlapping government at all levels.
''We need to try to clarify it so people will find government more friendly, '' says the veteran lawmaker who adds he plans to research that problem after leaving Congress.
On the rising ranks of new congressmen, Bolling says, ''I think we have the best group of people in Congress today that I've ever seen.''
Of his own career, marked by a reputation for a sharp mind and an accompanying sharp tongue, he says, ''I told the truth. . . . Bluntness is the great secret weapon of politics, and I've lived on it.''
The senior Republican to retire this year, Arizona Rep. John J. Rhodes, leaves with mixed feelings about the House, where for 29 years he has served in the minority party, including seven years as minority leader. ''It isn't as effective as it was,'' he concludes.
''It's more democratic,'' he says, but less efficient.
When he first came in 1953, he recalls, the leadership ruled with an iron fist. For freshmen the rule was ''seen but not heard,'' which irked the new members and finally pushed them into rebellion. However, he notes, ''The House and Senate adjourned by mid-August with everything done. They just knew how to get it through.''
Now, even when important issues are at stake, the House plods along, he complains. ''There does have to be a way for Congress to respond quicker to needs.''
''The average member knows more about what's going on and takes a deeper interest, which I guess has its strengths,'' says Rhodes. But he proposes that the House, which has had an explosion of new committees and subcommittees during the past decade, needs to be ''streamlined.''
Congressman Rhodes leaves without attaining his hope of seeing the Republican Party capture the House and making him speaker. But he says he's happy with the role he played in setting up a budget procedure for Congress.
''It hasn't really done the job, but it's the right way to go,'' says the Arizonan.
One of the few freshman from the class of 1980 to drop out of Congress voluntarily, Rep. Gregory W. Carman (R) of New York, leaves on an upbeat note. After only two years in an institution where it usually takes several terms to become effective, he offers few complaints.
''Contrary to the cynicism'' about Congress members, he says, ''I have found people here trying to do a pretty credible job and trying to work very, very hard.''
Like veteran Representative Rhodes and others, the Long Island representative notes, ''Congress is unwieldy sometimes and seems to fall all over itself.'' But he also adds, ''When it needs to move quickly, it seems to move quickly. When it wants to muddle, it does.''
He is leaving because of a ''strong need to be with my family,'' and not because he disliked his job on the Hill. But Carman does criticize the constant traveling that a representative must do. ''I found it tiring,'' he says.