The House yesterday rejected attempts by area congressmen to let U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole reduce the ceiling on the number of people who can use National Airport each year below the current 16 million.

The 249-to-170 vote came after more than an hour of debate on the House floor in which Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and other local representatives argued unsuccessfully that Congress should stay out of airport policy and allow Dole to reduce the ceiling to as low as 14.8 million, as she has proposed.

About 13.5 million people now use the airport per year, Wolf told legislators before the vote. "The Dole plan is modest and calls for no cuts . . . . Quite the contrary, the policy will allow for additional growth."

The Senate has not yet considered the passenger ceiling.

The House vote was a major defeat for the area delegation, citizen groups seeking less traffic at National and leaders of local governments, who in recent days have showered House offices with letters and phone calls in favor of the proposed reduction.

It was a victory for airlines, which saw it as unfair control of their business and had lobbied against it, and for legislators who have for years fought any measure they see as restricting traffic at National.

Opponents, led by Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), said a lowered ceiling would eventually lead to service cutbacks and unfairly reopen issues that they said were settled in 1981 when a detailed traffic and noise policy for National was adopted after years of debate.

Airport policy is not necessarily the domain of area residents, one opponent said. "This is our nation's capital," John T. Myers (R-Ind.) said during the debate. "It doesn't belong to you people who happen to live here. It belongs to the taxpayers . . . . Don't they have any rights?"

Dole, in a statement issued by a spokesman, said she was disappointed with the vote. "We believe the majority in the House misread our intentions, which are not to deprive travelers of any flights currently serving that airport," she said.

The vote centered on a clause in the $11.3 billion 1984 transportation appropriations bill inserted by Dole's opponents to specifically bar her from lowering the passenger ceiling. Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) and Wolf jointly introduced an amendment to remove that clause. Reps. Stan Parris (R-Va.), Steny Hoyer and Michael Barnes (both D-Md.) and Marjorie Holt (R-Md.) spoke in favor of the amendment. After their amendment was defeated, the House passed the entire bill.

Dole's supporters argued that the lowered cap would begin channeling new growth to Dulles International or Baltimore-Washington International starting in 1985, creating a more balanced distribution of traffic among the three airports.

Wolf also raised safety questions, saying that last year's crash of an Air Florida jetliner with the loss of 78 lives underlined inherent safety problems at National. Dole has not said the shift is necessary for safety--the Department of Transportation maintains that National meets all federal safety standards.

But Sabo and other opponents argued that the 1981 level of 16 million should be kept, so as to give airlines some stability in their planning for operations at National. Citing increased traffic at the two other airports, Sabo said: "BWI and Dulles aren't withering on the vine . . . .There's natural growth occurring at those places."