The next sentence would not be considered high praise for any other organization or business in the world - but here goes:

Congress actually worked in January and is actually working hard in early February, too.That's never really been done much before, at least not in recent history. In most years, Congress barely bothers to even show up in January. It convenes around Jan. 4, and members usually disappear (or return to work in home districts, as they say) until the president's State of the Union address at the end of the month.

Only then does Congress normally begin voting on bills, and usually only on relatively minor ones for a few months to give major bills time to wind through hearings and committee action.

That usually allows Congress watchers - including reporters - to have an easy couple of months too, and turn attention to other arms of the federal government and poke around for stories there.

Sometimes, the only thing for reporters to do was write columns about how Congress wasn't doing anything. But not this year.

Of course, the House Republicans' Contract With America is the reason behind Congress's harder work, and is why some heavy-duty bills are receiving early consideration.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of course, convinced most House Republicans during the campaign to sign a pledge that if they won control, they would hold votes within the first 100 days on everything from House reform to a balanced budget amendment and the line-item veto.

The House has already passed those three bills - and stayed past midnight on its first day to enact the reform.

So how hard has this Congress worked?

On Feb. 8, the House held its 100th roll call vote this session. Gingrich said the earliest the House had ever passed that mark before was on March 15.

During January, the House was in session for 115 hours. The average for January work by other congresses between 1981 and 1993 was 28 hours - or four times less.

The Senate was in session even longer - 169 hours, in part because it took that long to get around a Democratic filibuster blocking a bill to ban passing unfunded mandates on to states.

The House met on 16 days in January. The only time in the post-Watergate era that it met more was in 1991 when the Persian Gulf War loomed and forced it into session to discuss it.

The House has even been holding votes on Monday and Friday. In the past, it has rarely done that to allow members extra time to fly home and back. Congress's work week in Washington was almost strictly Tuesday through Thursday.

A few other statistics may be of note. The House had 155 committee and subcommittee meetings in January - or six times more than the 1981-93 average of 25. The number of floor votes was 79 that month, or eight times more than the average of nine.

The scorecard of what the House has passed so far under the new Republican regime include: House reform, the balanced budget amendment, a presidential line-item veto, banning unfunded mandates and portions of promised changes in past crime bills.

The Senate has passed the unfunded mandates ban and has been holding extended debate on the balanced budget amendment.

Republicans still have far to go on their Contract of America with a third of their first 100 days already gone. Other promised votes are yet to come on welfare reform, a middle-class tax cut, tax breaks for senior citizens, product liability reform, cutting capital gains tax and beefing up national defense.

Frankly, Congress faces a tough time getting in votes on all of them in 100 days and a tougher job still to pass them. And holding House-Senate conferences to iron out differences to allow final passage may take time.

But if the Contract With America does nothing else, it is making Congress work early and often. It probably helped that the contract said that if the GOP didn't comply with its terms, voters shouldn't re-elect them. It's been a nice prod.