Laurence Tolliver, 14, the youngest page in Congress, spends a lot of his time poised on the edge of the Senate chamber rostrum with every muscle in his small round body at attention. He's like a bird dog at point.

Across perhaps 20 feet of blue-and-white pile carpet, up the right aisle, at a desk four places in along the last row on the Democratic side, is the object of Tolliver's attention: his sponsor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass).

Tolliver's eyes follow Kennedy's right hand when the senator reaches for a bill or a memo or when the senator's hand rises to scratch his scalp or smooth his hair, because Tolliver wants to be the first page to get there when Kennedy snaps his fingers.

At any signal Tolliver is an iron filing suddenly within range of a powerful magnet. It's a little awesome, as if the attraction is so strong that the boy will end up stuck to the man. He always stops in time, though, listens and then tears off on the errand - a message, a glass of water - and then back to the rostrum, waiting for his favorite time, when Kennedy talks and Tolliver can memorize the words.

Maybe after four years Tolliver will understand how Kennedy always makes himself the focal point of everything. In 1984, according to Tolliver's blueprint, Kennedy will be president and Tolliver will be starting his sophomore year at Harvard.

Kelley Landolphi, 17, tries to look and act as much his sponsor as possible. He doesn't have all that far to go, even though House Speaker Tip O'Neill is old enough to be Landolphi's grandfather. To start with, Landolphi is what is called heaveset, around 200 pounds. Like the speaker, he likes to belly up to things in an expansive way. One of his favorite positions is the Boston caucustable pose - feet way back, hands flat on the table top, head forward, eyebrows down. He's got the Boston political hello down pretty well, too: "Ha waya?"

Landolphi also has the right connections: his father (from an Italian family) is a successful restaurateur in a Boston suburb, his mother (from an Irish family) is a Democratic committeewoman and was a college friend of John Kennedy's. These connections, he will admit with a smile, certainly didn't hurt when his original sponsor, Rep. Michael Harrington (D-Mass.) was voted out of office and Landolphi needed someone else.

O'Neill was glad to take him on, and, other pages have noticed, since then Landolphi's rise through the ranks has been pretty fast. He's been working for only eight months, but already he's a documentarian, responsible for ringing the bells for votes, raising the flag on the roof of the House, carrying the word from the speaker's office about which bills are scheduled for debate.

On his off-hours Landolphi likes to wear a Boston College parka, a gift, he says, from the college president, the Rev. J. Donald Moanan - a good man, one of the best, says Landolphi. He says he provided Moanan with a little information about a political group.

Susanne Cox, 17, was appointed in January through the good offices of her home congressman, James R. Jones (D-Olka.), but is still a low-level running page who spends most of her time in the tunnels between the Capitol and the various House office buildings, wandering down endless corridors with bulky packages and seeing very little of the real action on the House floor or in the cloakroom. Cox is unhappy, therefore, with what she feels are "injustices" in the system . . . people coming up fast because of who they are. It's monotonous in the tunnels, and when you get back from an errand you're ordered out on another one by someone who might be younger than you are, or less senior.

However, things may improve. Her congressman may get his own patronage slot from the House Personnel Committee and appoint her to another seven months. In spite of his lack of clout, that would give her enough seniority to make it out of the tunnels, onto the floor and maybe even into the cloakman, where she could start to get to know more congressman. "It's limitless, what you can do with that kind of contact," Cox says. "If there's one thing you learn here, it's that eventually everything goes back to politics."

"From my earliest days as a a knickers-clad page boy, I had heard whispers of what senator might be entertaining his secretary on the office couch, which senator's legs had betrayed him in chambers or in a hideway office after a five-martini lunch, and what senators had their hands out." - Bobby Baker, in Wheeling and Dealing.

What's amazing is that more pages haven't gone on to make the kind of name for themselves as the most famous of them all, Baker, who probably was only a little more ambitious than the rest. It would be hard to find anybody more open and vulnerable than Capitol pages to the beguiling three-ring power circus that is the American political system.

Imagine: instead of sex, pimples, rebellion and rock-and-roll, you're worrying about rollcalls, cloakroom clout, patronage and favors. You argue party politics instead of baseball scores with your peers. You can go places in the Capitol where only the mightiest are allowed, such as the Senate Marble Room.

You know all the secret offices and when not to knock on the doors. You can walk into maybe 10 legislator's offices on a slow day, sit down and chat with them about anything you want, including the possibility of a discreet phone call to a contact in a university admissions office.

You might be only 16, but it doesn't take you long to forget it, because your parents are hundreds of miles away (except for a minority whose parents live in Washington), you're making more than $7,000 a year, and outside of work and a little perfunctory schooling you're totally on your own. Do the pages listen when they're told, "It's too much too soon; being a page can ruin you; I''ve seen it happen"?

Many of them obviously do. Over the years eight pages have gone on to become congressman themselves; four have become House officials, six Senate officials. However, as one teacher at the Capitol Page School says, "If 45 percent of the pages end up in some kind of politics, it's not too hard to imagine a lot of them using their special knowledge and contacts in back rooms."

Some ex-pages feel compelled as a kind of exorcism to write seamy novels or exposes about their experiences. Such as Politico, privately published by 19-year-old Eric Brauner: "On the political intrigues of the Washington elite . . . with its underlying theme the ruthlessness and isolation of politics."

Steven R. Valentine, sponsored by Sens. Birch Bayh (D-Indiana), John V. Tunney (D-Calif.), and Rep. Robert Casey (D-Texas) in the early 1970s, spent a lot of time after his appointments expired trying to peddle what he said was information about homosexual congressmen's exploits with two pages, drug rings, pornographic literature and high-ranking members of the Nixon administration. When nobody bought it, he included it in his own memoirs, published by a small Midwestern press, which he then donated to the Senate library:

"To say that I lived an unusual or extravagant life for a 16-year-old . . . is an understatement . . . A page has such freedom and money that he or she quite literally can try to live out his/her every fantasy no matter how daring . . . We witnessed the Watergate drama firsthand; we saw the obvious drinking problems of high-ranking senators and House members; and we saw their often Machiavellian use of power. We saw it as no more than a few young teen-age Americans can see it during any given year. What does this do to a young man or woman 15 or 16 years of age.?"

A former teacher at the Capitol Page School says the fast life on the Hill may have contributed to two incidents that have turned this year into "a bad year for the page system." In one, last August, a high-ranking page was arrested for selling marijuana to a First District vice detective, in part of what police called "a large overall undercover investigation."

The page pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Controlled Substances Act with multiple sales in quantities of over an ounce. A second defendant in the case is still at large.

In the other incident, in March, a page was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, after allegedly fracturing the skull of a congressional intern with a four-and-a-half-foot two-by-four, breaking his nose and lacerating his forehead.

"These are awfully young kids with a lot of money and no supervision at all," the former teacher says. "They get into a lot of things. What things? What else would I be talking about but booze, sex and dope."

This might actually be the year Congress decides to alter the page system, not that it hasn't been suggested before. But the system, like politics itself, operates through frequently illogical, sacred quirks and whims, contacts and taboos, and hasn't changed too much since the first pages were appointed in the beginning of the 19th century, except to include women and blacks, to expand, and apparently to get more self-conscious and elitist.

There seem to be as many different ways to get to be a page as there are to get into politics. If a senator or representative rates a patronage slot (Democrats have 53 of 65 House positions, 18 of 31 in the Senate) he can arrange for the appointment himself.If not, he might be able to find someone else to make the appointment. Contacts generally mean more to Democrats; Republicans select more competitively (some claim as many as 50 rejections to one acceptance). However, each member has his own procedure, as do the various committees that have to pass on the applicant. In the end, Capitol Page School principal John C. Hoffman says, "You know who gets the appointment."

Pages have traditionally been teenagers - now 14 through 18 - for practical reasons. Pages are gofers. They're supposed to be small enough to be unobstrusive running errands on the chamber floor, unsophisticated enough that cloakman gossip is beyond them, and energetic enough to go more than 10 miles a day carrying messages. Duties are partisan, like everything else in the pages' lives, but because there are so few Republican slots in the House, Democrats end up filling some of them. Many don't object, because the Republican system is neither as extensive nor as based on favoritism.

The scary part of the system, the part that they think about changing every once in a while but never seem to get around to, is that nobody and nothing officially functions in loco parentis. The pages, except for the 20 so whose parents are already in the Washington area, are really political orphans, with very little to fall back on except the system and how they play it.

Practically everybody on the Hill is superior to them, but no one is directly responsible for them.Their schooling is haphazard, because no one feels responsible for making it better. They are expected to find their own apartments (which must be approved by Senate or house supervisors) because there's no official page housing.

There is no one person designated to advise them, supervise them, or solve personal problems for them; they have to develop a contact themselves - maybe a friendly aide in their sponsor's office, in a very rare case the sponsor himself, a secretary to the doorkeeper in the House or the sergeant-at-arms in the Senate

"The kids are purely and simply being exploited," the former teacher says. "What you have is cheap, eager labor fueled by unsophisticated idealism and ambition. If the kid comes to understand what's happening to him, it can make him or her very cynical very early. It's not easy to worship somebody or something the way many of them do and then to realize that the person just doesn't really care about them, and that there's no real place for them in the system."

"I would never want a child of mine to be a page," says a congressional supervisor who works with them daily. "You get a terrible education, you work 14-hour days, you're in danger of being mugged or worse on your way home. And for what? It's all for some senator or congressman who might not even know your name."

All of which does not mean some parents are unhappy with things the way they are. Kelley Landolphi's mother personally inspected one of the rooming houses suggested by the doorkeeper's office and found it "very satisfactory," owned by a lady who has catered to pages for 30 years, who keeps strict parietal rules and maintains close personal contact with her tenants. Anne Klopfer, 72, the owner, says she can only take in seven boys at a time, usually from the same congressional offices, and that the number of rooming houses like hers is decreasing.

Susanne Cox's mother has never seen her daughter's apartment, which the page rents with one roommate, and remembers that when she first learned there was no dormitory she "was shocked, because when Susanne worked as a page in the state capitol, there was dormitory space provided. I figured that if they had dormitories on the state level, they would certainly have them on the federal. It's definitely a worry. They don't seem to understand that the pages are still children, no matter how mature and self-sufficient they might seem."

Propositions for reform have been floating around for years, but so far most have failed to jell. Anything to do with congressional perquisites and patronage is always touchy, the area of responsibility is spread out and ill-defined, and pages are low-priority anyway. One reform, considered off and on since 1965, would require pages to be high school graduates, eliminating the need for schooling and close supervision. The last time it came up was in 1973: the Senate passed it, but the House didn't.

The way the system is run now, a page can be appointed to a term of anywhere from eight weeks to two years in the House and four years in the Senate. Reformers feel this term should be standardized to one school year or one semester to prevent what one teacher calls the "easy-come, easy-go syndrome" in classrooms.

The history of failed housing reforms goes back to 1943, when a House bill was filed "to provide for the acquisition and maintenance of suitable accomodations for the pages." It never reached the floor, even when it was introduced a few years later. Three subsequent bills failed too. A Select Committee on the Welfare and Education of Congressional Pages held hearings on the matter in 1964 and recommended either raising the required age or building a domitory. Nothing. Nothing either out of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress in 1965.

Finally, in 1971, $50,000 was appropriated to enable the architect of the Capitol to develop studies and prepare preliminary plans and cost estimates to buy a site and to construct a school/dormitory. In 1973 $1.45 million was appropriated to buy the site, and it was approved by the House Office Building Commission. Then the effort was deflected by a Senate bill to raise the age of pages to 18 to 21, making the dormitory superfluous. The bill failed to pass the House, but by that time the whole dormitory matter had sunken into limbo, where it is right now.

Yes, the pages have schooling; it's their only real ongoing program, and even that didn't exist before 1926. They were taught more or less continuously in the basement of the Capitol until 1945, when Sen. Harold Burton (R-Ohio) submitted this report to the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress:

"There were desks, but water was dripping from the ceiling onto the desks and the plaster was falling down. A piece that had fallen had just missed a boy. There were no blackboards in the rooms, and there was no adequate lighting . . they have no laboratory, no library, nor any modern school facilities at all."

The present school facilities are up under the eaves at the Library of Congress where six teachers, a principal who doubles as a counselor, and a secretary work. The school is part of the District school system, and staff members are school system employes. In 1976 student complaints initiated a report by a House Education subcommittee which called the "inadequacy" of this setup a "reflection on Congress." The report was never published, and no action was taken.

John C. Hoffman, the school principal, agrees it's mostly the fault of the Congress. The appointment schedule keeps the student body changing all the time; he has only four hours a day starting at 6:15 a.m. for classes, sometimes less; his students complain to their sponsors if they get low grades. It seems to him that Congress doesn't pay much attention except to investigate and critcize. When he asks for more staff and better equipment, he says the lawmakers pretend he doesn't exist.

"It's kind of a two-faced approach," he says. "The politicans says they think these kids are important, but they act exactly the opposite. We have not been treated like an elite school here, not at all. We could use more teachers and better equipment, but we don't get it. I've been advocating the information of a committee that could be our guardian angel and advocate in Congress.

"This year's the first time we've had anything like that, and it hasn't met often. As far as discipline, we have no real control either. Are you going to tell a congressman or a senator what to do with his kid?"

The curriculum at the Capitol Page School does not acknowledge the exposure the students are getting to national politics. There are no special seminars on the events students watch every day from the Senate or House floor, only a guest lecturer once a month. The senior government course is taught by a social studies teacher with no special training. Last year the French and Spanish teacher was absent from Nov. 8 to April 17 without a replacement.

"Hopefully, if we get the extra teacher we requested, we can do some of the things we should be doing," Hoffman says. "But right now we're locked in. When a kid gets a bad grade, he goes to the politicians, and I get investigated. Well, at least they don't ask to have grades fixed and things."

More students complaints this year have resulted in yet another investigation, this time by the General Accounting Office. A preliminary draft of the study points out that although the secretary of the Senate and clerk of the House were, according to the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, supposed to "enter into arrangement with the D.C. Board of Education on education of pages," no such arrangement exists. "Without an arrangement," the study says, "it is difficult for the Board of Education to know exactly what services Congress expects it to provide, under what circumstances, and for what reimbursement."

The GAO study says reports sent by the school to Congress "do not provide information showing what the school is doing to improve page academic performance and school operations," nor apparently whether an individual page needs special attention.

Last year, the GAO study says, 18 out of 107 students were performing below their required minimum grade averages. Such students can be expelled by Congress, but, Hoffman told the GAO, on the few occasions when a student is dismissed, Hoffman is not told the reason.

The GAO report, according to congressional sources, was considered by the staff of the doorkeeper's office and the Senate sergeant - at - arms, among others, and was felt to be something of a "white-wash." So now the doorkeeper and the sergeant at arms are preparing their own reports and Rep. Paul Simon (D-III.) has filed a bill to establish a congressional board with total control over all aspects of the school, including the appointment of teachers.

A preliminary draft of doorkeeper James T. Molloy's report goes to the heart of the matter: "If Congress is to continue to enjoy the services of young people serving as Capitol pages, it should also assume some responsibility for the welfare of those young people during their terms of service. Improvements in the system would be assuredly improve the quality of service to the members in that they would be served by a healthier, better educated, and morally sounder group of individuals.

"In essence, some changes should be made, or the entire system should be revised to utilize individuals who need not be provided an education.

. . . Unfortunate experiences over the past years point to a need for a local individual responsible for each page. a work supervisor should not be expected to cope with non-work-related difficulties such as legal problems and physical and mental or emotional crises." CAPTION: Picture 1, Laurence Tolliver, at age 14 the youngest page in Congress, has already worked out his own blueprint for the near future: he figures that in 1984, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his sponsor, will be president and he will be in his sophomore year at Harvard College. Photographs by Helen Anrod Jones; Picture 2, Seventeen-year-old Susanne Cox does not like being a low-level running page who seems to spend most of her time in the tunnels between the Capitol and various House office buildings. She hopes to get out of the tunnels and onto the House floor because, she says, "It's limitless, what you can do with that kind of contact."