WASHINGTON — CONGRESS - the land of buttoned-down lawyers - could get a more diverse, all-American look among its members in the coming year.
Actors, physicians, businessmen, car dealers, and even radio talk-show hosts are lining up for the November congressional elections. There's a movie star running in Tennessee, a sportscaster campaigning in Arizona, and a one-time TV personality hunting votes in California.
Gary Koops, a Republican strategist, cheers the latest turn of events - which could seriously test the lawyers' lop-sided representation in Congress.
For many years, it was insiders, mostly attorneys and government officials, who ran for congressional seats. Now Mr. Koops says the pendulum is swinging toward outsiders. It's a trend that could bring more college professors, realtors, farmers, and business women to Washington.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that with President Clinton pushing for health-care reform, one of the biggest changes this year is the number of physicians seeking seats in Congress.
Only one medical doctor, Rep. J. Roy Rowland (D) of Georgia, and one psychiatrist, Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington, currently serve in the House, and there are none in the Senate.
Yet in 1994, Republicans say at least five doctors and two dentists may run on the GOP ticket for the Senate, and 21 doctors and dentists may run for the House. Democrats have a half-dozen possible physician-candidates.
Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour says it should be no surprise that doctors are leaping into politics. With the president planning to ``blow up'' the current health-care system and replace it with a government system, doctors ``understand the threat,'' he says.
While Congress purports to represent the entire nation, the personal experiences of its present members are far from representative. The balance is tilted heavily toward involvement in government and away from private enterprise. Of the Senate's 100 members, 54 are lawyers. Nearly 50 have served as state, city, or county officials.
The Senate includes only 26 members who claim any kind of business experience, including two former bankers, three broadcast executives, and one restauranteur. There are eight ranchers and farmers, seven educators, one author, two journalists, a social worker, a former professional basketball player, an author, a jewelry designer, a stockbroker, an accountant, an astronaut, a minister, and two retired military officers.
The late Richard Neuberger, an author who served in the Senate during the 1950s, called the unwillingness of most Americans to serve in their government ``one of the basic problems facing the nation.'' In his book ``Adventures in Politics,'' Mr. Neuberger particularly lamented the failure of common people of decency and intelligence to run, noting: ``The son of a locomotive engineer or dirt farmer might be more qualified for public life than the legatee of a millionaire.''
As the two major parties recruit candidates this year, they are using similar arguments. Dan Leonard, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, says the GOP has emphasized to doctors that ``you have the most important domestic legislation to hit Congress in decades - health care - and 433 votes in the House will be made by nonmedical professionals.''
Among the new faces in Congress next year could be two representatives of show business. They include Sonny Bono, of ``Sonny & Cher'' TV fame, who will run as a Republican in California's 44th Congressional District. The other is Fred Thompson, who often plays a big, tough-talking lawyer in the movies. He will run as a Republican for the Senate in Tennessee. (One irony: Mr. Thompson, while most known for his film acting, is also an attorney.)
FOR awhile, it looked as if the 44th District in California could have a TV star versus TV star matchup, with the Democrats fielding Ralph Waite of ``The Waltons.'' But Mr. Waite has decided not to run, sources say.
A Democratic campaign aide notes that the party already has approximately 400 House challengers running in 1994, an unusually high number. ``They run the gamut,'' he says. ``We are seeing a lot of politically nonexperienced people coming forward.''
Ken Klein, an official with the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, says the ``natural progression'' in Washington was previously to win a House seat, then move on to the Senate. This time, Democrats are seeing Senate candidates emerge with more far-flung backgrounds, including a teacher, a state attorney general, and a former law-school dean.
It's not exactly ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'' because they often have political experience, but there is definitely more diversity, Mr. Klein says.