When it looked like the federal government might get tough with the Federal National Mortgage Association, the mortgage finance giant did what any self-respecting corporate citizen might do: It formed a political action committee.

Two years ago, Fannie Mae established a PAC to funnel top managers' donations to congressional candidates. One of the main reasons for the move was concern over the Reagan administration's periodic proposals to assess "user fees" on the company or to revoke its federal charter.

"We've been an on-again, off-again target of the administration for the past seven years," said Bill Maloni, Fannie Mae's senior vice president for government affairs. "As we looked at the assault, we wanted to make sure we had as many options as we could. ... All the PAC allows us to do is manifest ourselves on the Hill in one more way."

In the context of overall PAC contributions, Fannie Mae is a tiny player: For the 1986 elections, the company's PAC donated about $11,000, mostly to members of the housing subcommittees in the House and the Senate. That compares with a total of nearly $50 million that corporate PACS as a whole gave congressional races in the last election.

In fact, none of the federal PACs run by area companies shows up on the Federal Election Commission's list of 50 largest corporate PACS, and only three local company PACs -- Martin Marietta Corp. of Bethesda, Fairchild Industries of Chantilly and BDM International Inc. of McLean -- gave more than $100,000 each to congressional candidates in the last election.

But as Fannie Mae shows, area companies have become increasingly adept at playing the political contribution game to raise their profiles in Congress, where key legislators can exert vast influence on issues of interest to businesses here, ranging from defense contracts and banking bills to telecommunications and housing policies. For the 1986 federal elections, more than two dozen local company PACs gave more than $900,000 in campaign contributions, according to a review of financial records on file with the FEC.

These PACS now are gearing up for this year's elections, and candidates are expected to be more demanding in their quest for campaign funds. Although the campaigns have barely begun, local business PACs have funneled nearly $200,000 to candidates.

"If we want to have a greater effect in communicating with members of Congress, we have to share a greater part of the burden in raising funds," said Richard Olson, head of the PAC at Dyncorp, a McLean defense contractor that plans to increase its donations this year. "It is a fact of life."

He said a PAC contribution to a legislator "makes our message more credible. It gets us more of a hearing than we might otherwise get."

"You contribute because it helps you in the business environment," said Steve Flajser, chairman of the PAC at Fairchild Industries. "If your competitors are doing it and you're not, you're at a disadvantage."

Under federal election rules, PACs are allowed to contribute up to $5,000 to a candidate in a primary and another $5,000 for the general election. Corporate PACS may only solicit contributions from senior executives and managers of the company, and they may not use corporate funds except for the administrative costs of running the PAC.

Of course, PAC contributions are not the only way corporations seek to influence congressmen. According to a study by the consumer group Common Cause, one of the increasingly popular ways for defense contractors to gain access to members of Congress is by paying honorariums for speeches.

But PAC contributions have captured the most attention, in part because of the soaring sums of money corporate America is pumping into federal elections. PAC officials say they are being inundated with requests for money from candidates of all stripes. "All you have to do is give once, and you're on everybody's list," said Fannie Mae's Maloni. "I receive four or five solicitations a week."

With this growth has come extensive criticism of the central role PAC contributions have come to play in federal campaigns, and various legislative efforts have been launched to rein in political action committees. "It is a fundamentally corrupt system," said Randy Huwa of Common Cause.

Local officials involved with PACS tend to deflect such criticism by arguing that they are simply playing by the rules of the current system and that while PAC contributions give the companies better access to legislators and their staffs, they do little else.

"It helps provide an entree for us," Bill Grove, vice chairman of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Cos.' federal PAC, said of a PAC contribution. But he added, "Anybody who thinks that $500 or $1,000 or even $5,000 is going to get you that much in terms of getting that candidate's vote ... is very, very sadly mistaken."

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor who has written about PACs, said academic studies show that other variables -- including ideology, party affiliation and constituent interest -- are much more important in influencing how congressmen vote.

Companies "do get access in return {for contributions}. That's all they get," Sabato said. "I would never say that PAC money is the only way or even the most effective way of influencing congressmen."

Despite these caveats, FEC records show that a variety of Washington area companies are active in the PAC contribution process, especially government contractors, telecommunications firms and banks. Records show that while the firms concentrate on key committees that oversee their industries, they also donate large amounts to Senate and House races in Maryland, Virginia and the District: The two most munificent local business PACS in 1986 were those of Martin Marietta and BDM International, both of which do heavy business with the Pentagon. Martin Marietta gave a total of more than $27,000 to 28 members of the House Armed Services Committee for the 1986 elections and a total of $9,000 to five Senate Armed Services committee members.

BDM, meanwhile, gave $11,000 to four members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and $19,000 to 22 members of the House Committee. Both companies also gave contributions to various members of the appropriations subcommittees on defense. Marriott Corp., a name often associated with conservative causes, ran the fourth most generous local PAC in 1986, with its contributions heavily tilted to Republican candidates. Marriott's two largest contributions were $4,506 to Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) and $5,000 to former Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), who lost her reelection bid. Fairchild Industries' PAC made sizable contributions to Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.), whose congressional district includes workers at a Fairchild plant that used to manufacture the T46A jet trainer for the Air Force. Both legislators had pushed -- unsuccessfully -- to reinstate the program after the Air Force cut the plane from its 1987 budget request.

Flajser, head of the Fairchild PAC, said D'Amato and Downey were likely more concerned that hundreds of jobs would be lost because of the Air Force's decision than they were about Fairchild's campaign contributions.

Communications Satellite Corp. of Washington has come under fire from Congress because of potential conflicts between its positions as having a U.S. monopoly in international satellite communications and its subsidiaries that compete with some of the very companies whose business it controls. While Comsat recently sold its manufacturing subsidiaries, company officials were concerned when the House telecommunications subcommittee held a hearing last summer to examine the issue.

Comsat gave a total of more than $8,400 to the reelection campaigns of 15 members of this subcommittee, though none to the current chairman, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who doesn't accept PAC contributions. MNC Financial Corp., a Baltimore bank holding company, is a good illustration of a PAC that concentrates primarily on local candidates: The vast majority of its contributions went to Maryland congressional candidates. Daniel Finney, an MNC spokesman, said the company believes it has a better chance of influencing members of the state's congressional delegation, rather "than trying to compete with all the other lobbyists in Washington" to reach other key legislators.

Like other PACS, MNC's political action committee sometimes seeks to play it safe, contributing to two candidates in the same political race. The bank's PAC donated $1,850 to Rep. Tom McMillen (D-Md.) and $2,000 to his Republican opponent, Robert R. Neal, as well as $5,750 to Rep. Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.) and $500 to her challenger, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Asked about this, Finney said, "Politicians who don't get elected stay involved with the political process."

----------------------1985-1986 CAMPAIGNS---------1987-1988 CAMPAIGNS

COMPANY---------DEMOCRATS-REPUBLICANS-TOTAL -DEMOCRATS-REPUBLICANS-TOTAL

Marriott..........$37,750.$55,506...$93,256 ...$3,000.$6,000..$9,000

Martin Marietta....62,175.107,500...169,675 ...31,758.17,700..49,458

C & P...............8,750..10,100....18,850 ....4,680..4,350...9,030

MCI................45,150..17,100....62,250 ...21,683..3,500..25,183

USAir...............8,050...8,300....16,350 ....4,150..2,500...6,950

Primark............34,920..19,750....54,670 ....5,825..1,600...7,425

DynCorp.............7,650...5,425....13,075 ....3,650..2,850...6,500

Washington Gas......4,700...9,950....14,650 ....1,000....500...1,500

Fairchild..........63,975..44,550...108,525 ....9,800..5,050..14,850

Comsat.............26,800..30,829....57,629 ....6,433..4,100..10,533

BDM................59,700..92,150...151,850 ...22,100.12,500..34,600

Fannie Mae..........7,200...3,800....11,000 ....4,200..2,550...6,750

Atlantic Research...2,650.......0.....2,650 ......250......0.....250

GEICO.................950.....350.....1,300 ........0......0.......0

Sovran Bank.........1,000...1,000.....2,000 ........0......0.......0

MNC................29,400...9,500....38,900 ......600..1,800...2,400

Bank of Virginia........0...2,150.....2,150 ........0......0.......0

First Maryland.....11,550...7,250....18,800 ....1,250......0...1,250

Perpetual...........7,900...2,200....10,100 ........0......0.......0

Equitable Bancorp...3,550...3,200.....6,750 ........0......0.......0

Pepco..............17,330..12,950....30,280 ....6,575....800...7,625

PHH Group...........9,100...4,750....13,850 ....1,750..1,000...2,750

UNC Inc...............300...1,050.....1,350 ........0......0.......0

American Security...6,850...3,100.....9,950 ......850..2,500...3,350

Washington Bancorp....500.......0.......500 ........0......0.......0

Woodward & Lothrop....250...1,500.....1,750 ........0......0.......0

TOTAL..............................$912,110 ................$199,404

1. Six months ended June 30, 1987.

2. Also includes payments to independent candidates.

SOURCE: Federal Election Commission