Washington — The family - which figures heavily in the rhetoric of both parties during this election year - may sound like a top priority for those hoping to return to the United States Congress.
But even those who make the family their No. 1 agenda item admit that the approach both houses take to family-related issues is typically ''fragmented'' and ''piecemeal.''
Issues that may pack a huge wallop for particular families - like military dependent care, food stamps, or pension reform - are brought up under committees considering all the aspects of broader topics (defense, health and human services, labor).
''The issues, although important, may not be high up on the particular committee's list of priorities, and the fact that it affects families may be seen only as an aside,'' says Ann Rosewater of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.
Those who are not addressing the family first may be unable to define it, say members of children's and aging committees. ''Is a family a mom, a dad, and two kids?'' asks Ms. Rosewater. ''Is it single parents, or couples with no children, or a grandmother living by herself?''
Seen in a certain light, nearly everyone fits into multiple layers of family groupings, while nearly everything Congress decides - from taxes to weapons to education to welfare - has an effect on some form of family.
While narrowing the definition enough to address the family successfully in Congress may be a diplomatic impossibility, the reverse - passing bills without examining their cumulative effect on the family - can result in undue hardships to particular groups of families. An example of this came with cuts suggested in the last three years to AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children); school lunch programs; the Women, Infants, and Children program; and food stamps - all of which, taken together, would have a severe impact on low-income families.
More than one congressman has echoed the thought of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) of Virginia, who would like to see such bills carry a ''family-impact statement,'' similar to an environmental-impact statement.
Such a thing is being tried, in fact, over in the Senate Labor Committee, with mixed results. Advocates say the statement points clearly to the benefits such bills as the Adolescent Pregnancy Bill can have; critics say the statement is ''so subjective as to be meaningless.''
That response echoes what appears to be a philosophical breach on family issues that had its origin, says an aide to Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R) of Alabama of the Senate Family Caucus, in the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.
''That brought certain camps to town to lobby,'' he says, referring to the so-called pro-life and pro-choice groups, ''and once they were here, they started to see that, by golly, Congress has a lot of impact on other family issues.''
Differences also show up in the alternative approaches of Senator Denton's caucus, which spent this past year focusing on the prevention of teen-age pregnancy and attempts to pass the Human Life Amendment outlawing abortion, and the Children's Caucus, co-chaired by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, which looked at issues like sexual abuse of children and the dropout rate among high school students.
Members of House and Senate children's and family committees seem to coalesce roughly around either attempts to examine America's rapidly changing families and address what seem to be new sets of problems (like the widespread need for day care, focused on this past year by the Committee for Children, Youth, and Families, headed by Rep. George Miller (D) of California), or attempts to strengthen, support, and enforce America's traditional family values (through measures such as the one that would require parental notification with the issuing of birth control).
How much effect these philosophies - or Congress itself - have on the family is also a subject of intense debate. ''The law has traditionally stayed out of family affairs,'' points out Senator Denton's aide, ''except in extreme cases. But since the 1960s, at least, the government has had a large effect on low-income and minority families,'' he says. ''Also, the divorce issue, which is messing up the state courts and bogging down in interstate problems, is coming to Washington for a long siege.''
The recent passage of a national child-support law - which took a unanimous vote in the House - illustrates this last point. ''It was a perfect politician's law,'' said one congressional aide, ''because it's a pocketbook issue that will help one constituency right where it counts.''
All the legislators contacted for this article reported that they receive many letters from constituents dealing with the divorce issue and the legal problems it brings.But Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D) of Ohio says she sees the federal government as having a far wider effect than on just divorced or low-income people. ''We hit them on social security, on taking care of their elderly relatives, on health care. The family's really been clobbered lately.''
In addition to passing specific laws that benefit - or harm - various families, many congressmen see themselves and their committees as facilitators for the family. ''We're not here to say, 'Let the federal government do it,' '' Representative Miller said recently, ''but to look at programs around the country that work.''
By bringing those successful programs to light - as well as looking at ways the family is hurt by government programs (like that which requires the man to leave so the family will qualify for welfare) - he believes his committee can uncover ways local groups can emulate these programs to solve their own problems.
Representative Wolf, a member of Mr. Miller's committee, has taken this one step further, working within his own district to foster private-sector day care - and within the House to foster good parenting. A friend of Fitzhugh Dodson (author of ''How to Parent''), Representative Wolf keeps the author's films on parenting in his office and encourages his fellow House members to view them - and to go home to their families.
While such private efforts may have a significant effect on those involved, hearings like the ones held by the Senate Children's Caucus, says Marsha Renwanz , legislative assistant to Senator Dodd, help focus on particular family issues and have a ''crescendoing effect,'' she says.
Committee members often take concerns and information garnered from these hearings back to their other committees in the form of proposed bills, like the After School Care Bill, which grew out of that caucus's hearings on latchkey children, Dr. Renwanz reports.
''We're like background noise,'' says Ms. Rosewater of the House Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. ''We don't initiate bills, but because we're here and looking at these issues, they don't go away or get hidden.''
Still, says committee head Representative Miller, ''we all go around saying our children are our future and our greatest treasure. But we sure don't act like it.''