Washington — Forget the idea of the starry-eyed freshman member of Congress, with visions of saving America in his head. Just talk to Cass Ballenger. Mr. Ballenger spent 12 years in the North Carolina legislature and was one of the biggest fish in his state's political pond. He owned a bustling plastics firm. He became a grandfather. He was happy.
Then, James T. Broyhill, the local Republican congressman, decided to run for the Senate. The state Republican Party needed someone to replace him. ``They waved the flag and motherhood and apple pie at me. What was I to do?'' asks Ballenger, who, like most other new members after a few days on the job, sits behind an empty desk in an empty office lined with empty bookshelves.
``If I had my druthers,'' he admits, ``I'd be someplace else.''
In some ways, the 50 new House members who comprise the ``Class of 1986'' seem like a pretty low-key bunch. Republican or Democrat, they revel in words like ``conciliation,'' ``consensus,'' ``balance,'' and ``resolution.''
They have entered the Congress in the twilight of the Reagan era, expressing acute consciousness about the magnitude of the problems facing the country, yet acting as though they are at least a bit less than certain that they know precisely what to do about them.
``They're certainly not rabble-rousers,'' says one House Democratic leadership aide. ``You get a sense they value moderation.''
``It comes with age,'' says Ben Nighthorse Campbell, one of two new Democratic representatives from Colorado.
In age and ideology, this class breaks with the recent past. In 1980, seven members of the new class were under 30, all of them enthusiasts for the new conservative philosophy. Two years later, six of the seven new members under age 31 were Democrats pledged to halt the Reagan revolution.
In 1984, the Republicans were resurgent: three-quarters of the new pledges in the House were from the President's party.
The Class of 1986 is split 27 to 23 between Democrats and Republicans. There is one freshman under age 34, but the average age is 46.
Nearly all seem to come to Washington sharing one message from the folks back home.
``They don't want to pay more taxes,'' says civil rights leader John Lewis, who is the newly elected Democrat from Atlanta.
Several analysts have tied the character of this class to the atmosphere of the past election year. No clear national theme pervaded, and each region was concerned largely with its own troubles. As a result, congressional candidates prevailed by stressing personal accomplishment over party ideology. That, the argument goes, meant comparatively older and more moderate victors from both parties.
``In tough years, experienced people win,'' says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, who was elected in 1982.
Indeed, the new class is said to constitute one of the most experienced lot of new congressmen ever to come to town. Most of them have spent some time as elected officials.
But unlike this year's new senators, most of whom have served in the US House of Representatives, most of the House freshman have never represented constituencies as large as the ones they now represent in Congress - upwards of half a million.
Many of them say the Reagan-era economy has not made their task as representatives any easier. Some districts straddle regions where the benefits of economic recovery vary sharply - a fact that helps quell ideological zeal.
A number of the new members say they still have not figured out how to represent the interests of both rich and poor.
``There are more Lear jets on the runways in Aspin than there are sparrows in the trees, but I've also got Navajo women who don't speak any English yet,'' says Mr. Campbell, whose sparsely populated district covers 53,000 square miles.
``It's a tough district to represent,'' he adds.
Many of the new members talk of building bridges across the ideological spectrum. Campbell - half Northern Cheyenne Indian, Olympic judo champion, trainer of quarter horses, and noted jewelry craftsman - first ran for the Colorado legislature in his conservative district wearing a ponytail. He won.
He cut off the ponytail when he decided to run against the local Republican congressman, Rep. Mike Strang in last fall's election.
And despite Campbell's clear underdog status, he was one of the few challengers in last year's House elections to defeat an incumbent.
``Neither party has the answer to the big problems,'' he says. So, typical of the Class of 1986, Campbell picks and chooses his positions from those of both parties.
A fiscal conservative - he refused to allow his campaign to assume any debt - Campbell signed up last week to cosponsor a balanced-budget constitutional amendment. But he eschews the budget slicing automaticity of the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act.
In their early days as lawmakers, several of the new would-be moderates find themselves picking their way around a veritable mine field of competing interests.
Curt Weldon, the new Republican who succeeds Democrat Bob Edgar as the congressman from Pennsylvania's Seventh District, might like to have asked for a place on the House Education and Labor Committee. But with the endorsements of 29 local labor leaders, as well as the national and local Chamber of Commerce, the former mayor and county commissioner has shied from such an assignment. ``I'd be inundated,'' he says.
Likewise, North Carolina's Ballenger finds himself seeking protective tariffs to shield his state's textile and furniture manufacturers from overseas competitors even though President Reagan, for whom he has campaigned, opposes such measures.
``I'm in a quandary,'' Ballenger says.
Congressman Lewis of Atlanta, who led historic protests throughout the South in the early 1960s, was beaten by segregationists several times and jailed on 40 separate occasions during that period.
Now he is coming to grips with the challenge of representing a district that includes both Atlanta's suburban opulance and urban poverty.
``It is hard to strike a balance,'' Lewis says, echoing the sentiments of his colleagues. ``What we need is a coalition of the middle.''