When three Northern Virginia legislators stepped into the Maryland State House last week, they discovered some startling differences between their own legislative powers and those of their colleagues in Maryland. But they also found some remarkable similarities, and as one Virginia lawmaker put it, a certain kinship.

"We in Northern Virginia are more typical of the kind of people they have here," judged Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), after a day of comparing notes on legislative styles in the Old Dominion and the Free State.

Callahan, Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) and Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) came here last thursday on the heels of two Fairfax Democrats, delegates Dorothy S. McDiarmid and Gladys B. Keating, who visited the Maryland General Assembly early last week.

While clearly disdainful of some Maryland legislative processes -- and envious of others -- the three Virginia visitors quickly came to the conclusion that they had more in common with the urban centers of Maryland than with some of the provincial and courtly traditions of Richmond.

Callahan, Stambaugh and Saslaw, arriving at the Maryland capital beside the Seven River on a bright spring day, met legislators from Montgomery and Prince George's counties and chatted about such mutual regional issues as Metro funding and the D.C. voting rights amendment.

The day was not without its lighter moments. House Speaker Devlin also lauded the political diversity of the Northern Virginia delegation and said the increasing number of two-party contests meant Virginia had "more fun" than Maryland with its virtual Democratic fiefdom.

"Republicans in Prince George's? We don't allow them," Devlin crowed. "There are three of them in Montgomery County, and they are more liberal than most of the Democrats."

After declining invitations to socialize at the famed Fran O'Brien's, the three Northern Virgonians began the hour-long drive back to Fairfax County. t

The day, they said, had been fun and enlightening, and Saslaw began planning a friendly get-together in Fairfax for area Virginia and Maryland legislators. It would be really useful, he said, for them to meet and discuss common problems.

Then, realizing that the Maryland guests would outnumber their Virginia hosts 52 to 27, Saslaw had a better idea: "Let's get them to invite us." Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) jokingly tried to borrow their votes to help kill a spending limitations bill. When the three Virginians went for lunch at a popular sandwhich deli they were given former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel's reserved table. And, as luck would have it, the Maryland House members lived up to their infamous reputation by barking and howling during a vote on regulating dog wardens.

By day's end, the Virginians were swapping stories with the Marylanders, inviting them to visit the General Assembly in Richmond and suggesting that Washington area legislators get together more often.

Still, there were some adjustment problems.

Although cautioned by one Marylander to expect "a little less formality here," these trained-in-Virginia legislators soon decided, in the words of Saslaw, that "There's no formality at all."

All three Virginians, for example, blanched during a House floor debate when opposing lawmakers began talking directly to each other.

"They don't go through the chair," exclaimed a startled Saslaw. "They're just going ahead and asking questions to each other."

In Virginia, a legislator dare not question a colleague without first asking permission of the presiding officer, and even then, friend and foe alike are addressed as Gentleman or Lady.

Despite Maryland's less than formal debating procedures, the Virginians were amazed -- and impressed -- to find that both chambers in Maryland were filled with a clean air."

"Nobody's smoking," said Stambaugh, accustomed to cigarette and cigar smoke, a permanent fixture in rooms where two or more Virginia lawmakers gather.

In a state where tobacco is king, smoking is almost a demonstration of economic loyalty and is neither taxed nor infringed upon in legislative chambers. In Maryland, by contrast, all lawmakers, even the chain-smoking House majority leader, must leave the chamber to indulge.

But one of the most peculiar experiences for the three Virginia lawmakers, was watching Maryland's version of the committee system -- the process by which bills work (or don't work) their way through the General Assembly.

Callahan, Saslaw and Stambaugh -- sitting in the visitors' gallery and poring over Assembly brochures, seating charts and legislative schedules like any tourists -- didn't know what to make of it.

Maryland issues commitee reports each day, listing every bill acted on and noting which bills were killed or sent to the House or Senate floor. By contrast, Virginia publishes a daily calendar listing only bills that reach the floor, but including how each committee member voted-on the bill. (In Maryland, the committee clerk will give you the roll call vote, and in Virginia, the clerk or a committee member will tell you what happened to a bill that died in committee).

Although the Virginians were smug that their committee reporting system provided more information -- an assumption disputed by almost any citizen or reporter familiar with both systems -- they were quite impressed with one twist to the Maryland legislative procedure.

The 141-member Maryland House -- 41 members more than in Virginia -- uses a large projection screen in a corner of the chamber to show all proposed amendments to bills being considered on the floor.

"Now that's a good idea," said Saslaw, as he, Callahan and Stambaugh followed the progress of several bills.

Callahan, Stambaugh and Saslaw also were astounded to learn that the sponsor of a bill in Maryland never explains the measures when it gets to the Assembly floor. That honor goes, instead, to the chairman of the committee that approved the bill, who also acts as the chief spokesman for the proposal.

"I'd hate to have the chairman explain my bill," said Stambaugh, no doubt recalling times when some of his measures squeaked out of committee over the objections of the chairman.

Among the things they liked about the Maryland legislature, the three Virginians included the shoe shine stand on the first floor of the State House, the roomy lounges (with free coffee) next to the House and Senate and the larger number of blacks and women in both chambers. In Maryland, there are five black senators and nine black delegates compared with one black in the Virginia House of Delegates. The numbers are about the same for women: In Maryland there are three women senators and 21 women delegates; Virginia has one woman in the Senate and eight in the House of Delegates.

Stambaugh also admired the seperate meeting rooms of the large regional delegation -- 32 legislators from Prince George's, 25 from Montgomery -- and said it would be nice if the 27-member Northern Virginia delegation had its own place to meet in Richmond.

Chatting with Montgomery House members, the three Virginians traded woes with Del. David L. Scull over soaring Metro costs. Scull also introduced them to a reporter from Baltimore, adding playfully, "You'll need to know him when we annex Northern Virginia."

Montgomery Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a member of the House Appropriations Committe, explained the yearly budget process and was surprised by the control Virginia legislators have over their state's two-year budget.

"We can only cut the budget, we can't add," Kopp told Callahan, a member of the appropriations panel in Virginia.

It didn't take the Virginians long to sense how the political winds were blowing. After only a few hours in the Maryland legislature, all three were able to predict the fate of a proposal to allow artists certain tax exemptions: a"This bill is in trouble."

In a hallway after the morning House session, the three Virginians mingled easily with the Marylanders. Saslaw invited Del. Frank J. Komenda (D-Prince George's) and other legislators to take a day off next year so he could show them around the Virginia Assembly.

Del. Anthony Cicoria (D-Prince George's) gave the visitors a warm welcome, and an even warmer suggestion to "take care of" -- that is, to kill -- "that D.C. (voting rights) amendments."

Mostly, though, the day was apolitical and full of humor.

Scanning portraits of former Maryland House Speakers, Callahan asked, "How many of the people in those pictures are in jail?"

While seated comfortably at the "Governor's Office" table at Chick and Ruth's Delly, Callahan couldn't resist one more observation. "That's interesting," he said. "The Great Seal of Maryland has a racehorse on it." i

Maryland lawmakers struck back by poking fun at Virginia's aristocratic and seniority-burdened image and the emergence of Republicans as a growing political force.

"I always wanted to know what the Privileges and Elections Committee did," quipped Del. Gerald F. Devlin (D-Prince George's).