On May 7, Fairfax developers drank champagne on Rte. 28 to toast road improvements near $1 billion of planned development, District police announced they had written 11,000 rush-hour tickets in the previous month, and commuters around the Capital Beltway ended another workday crawling through traffic.

That same day, the National Capital Planning Commission -- the federal government's premier planning agency, with a $3 million budget and a staff of 50 -- reviewed designs for a Navy doghouse.

"We're like eunuchs," said an official closely affiliated with NCPC, a largely advisory body created 63 years ago to evaluate the location and design of the area's federal buildings and to review private and local projects near federal property.

Never has the commission been more needed and more useless, he said. "We're designed for impotence and paralysis."

Although some believe that NCPC is an outdated body that needlessly duplicates the efforts of local planning boards, most local planning officials agree that a federal planning board is needed to monitor changes to historic property and federal buildings. Because local zoning laws do not apply to federal projects, NCPC is the only body able to stop federal agencies from building whatever they want, wherever they want -- a power it has only in the District.

For instance, Arlington officials are concerned because neither they nor NCPC has the power to reject plans under consideration by the Pentagon that would demolish the Navy Annex building and construct a $450 million addition that would include several buildings and about 3 million square feet of office space.

Even some of its 12 commissioners say NCPC has become so anemic -- it is often ignored by developers, local jurisdictions and federal departments -- that drastic steps are needed if it is ever to become more than a debate club. It has the potential and resources, they say, to modify development that may adversely affect the image and functioning of the nation's capital.

"We have gotten bogged down in minutiae," said Glen Urquhart, chairman of the commission. Recalling the Navy's recent request that the commission review designs for their new dog kennel, he said, "I think there are much larger planning needs and challenges than we generally address."

The last time Congress extensively examined the commission, which is an independent agency directly funded by Congress, was in 1952, and the last time it altered its membership was when the District won home rule in 1973.

A telephone poll of local members of the House and Senate found little current interest in strengthening the NCPC. "We've got a lot of constituents complaining about traffic and development," said one congressional aide, "but few people know about NCPC, and nobody that I know of has ever asked us to do anything about it."

In interviews with two dozen national, regional and local planners, as well as several NCPC commissioners, many intrinsic problems with the commission were cited, including:The commission's mission is to guard the "federal interest" in the region. The term is interpreted differently by the commissioners, local officials and developers. A 1983 U.S. General Accounting Office report said that "absent agreement on the definition of 'federal interest,' GAO could not determine the commission's effectiveness." Although the commission was created as a planning review board to protect the federal interest in the National Capital Region, which encompasses Northern Virginia and adjacent counties in Maryland, its only real authority lies in the District. So, while in 1982, it did reject a proposed 11-story Navy memorial arch on Pennsylvania Avenue, last year NCPC was not even consulted before the U.S. General Services Administration purchased a new Silver Spring building for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The commission has no oversight on 30 million square feet of GSA-leased office space, which this year will cost the federal government $342 million. Although NCPC was designed as a federal panel, only one of the 12 commissioners actually represents Americans coast to coast.

Of the three presidential appointees, one must live in Maryland and another in Virginia. Two of the commissioners are appointed by the D.C. mayor and two by the D.C. Council, and two represent House and Senate committees on District affairs.

Because six members on the board have an orientation toward the District, other commissioners and outside planners raise frequent complaints that the national commission is really a District committee. The other three members represent the GSA, the Department of Interior and the Department of Defense.

"We have seen the ascendancy of parochial interests," said Urquhart, who is also a McLean developer.

William E. Baumgaertner, a Maryland traffic engineer appointed to the commission by President Reagan, said that because NCPC is largely advisory, even "the federal agencies go through the motions. They are very courteous . . . but in the end they ignore what we say."

Just last week the National Park Service, without NCPC's approval, laid the asphalt for a $7 million Rock Creek Park tennis center.

Dorn McGrath, chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a planning group that helped establish NCPC in 1924, said the commission desperately needs to be reevaluated and updated so it can adequately address the current needs.

"No agency has the big picture on the region," McGrath said. "Nobody is educating people about what things could be. There is no counterforce to the developers who say they want to build up and down the Potomac. Nobody is advocating the image of the future."

R. Robert Linowes, a prominent Montgomery County zoning lawyer, also sees an urgency for a stronger NCPC. "The important thing is it's got to have the ability to address the problems. It's got to be more than a debating society."

One way to ensure that federal and local agencies listen to NCPC decisions is for Congress to withhold federal money from projects NCPC is reviewing until it approves them, Linowes said.

While there is support for NCPC's authority over federal projects in the District and hope that that power might be extended over federal projects in the suburbs, there is widespread disagreement about whether a new NCPC should have veto power on private suburban construction.

Proponents say the commission "absolutely" needs such power because huge projects like PortAmerica in Prince George's County, first proposed to be a 52-story high-rise, affect the whole look of the capital. Opponents say "never" because they believe that local zoning bodies should be able to oversee development in their jurisdictions without interference.

Above all, most planning officials interviewed agreed, the membership must be reconsidered if the agency is retained.

The strong District representation "sometimes makes it hard for us to act like a regional planning commission," Baumgaertner said.

Patricia Elwood, newly appointed by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, knows that better than anyone. "It's a tug of war," she said. "Although I'm supposed to represent the federal interest, I have to be cognizant of the local interest. It's a constant pull."

The tug of war is clearly evident during votes about where to build federal offices. GSA wants to build offices in the suburbs, where the office space is cheaper and the Metro system less strained. Despite the clear financial advantage, D.C.-minded commissioners consistently fight any measure to place federal workers outside the District.

Many believe that the District's eagerness for new jobs and tax dollars overpowered the federal interest when the commission approved Techworld in November 1984. NCPC's well-regarded staff recommended that Techworld, a $300 million, 2.3 million-square-foot office complex to be built between Seventh, Ninth, I and K streets NW, be rejected.

The staff said the closing of historic H Street, a street in L'Enfant's 1791 plan of the capital city, as well as the bulk and height of the structure, would destroy vistas near the Martin Luther King Memorial Library and the National Portrait Gallery. Still, the project was approved, 7 to 4.

Fred L. Greene, the District planning director who represents Barry on the commission, is the most vocal D.C. advocate. His lack of support for the one effort that several other commissioners called their most worthwhile pursuit -- NCPC's plan for 2050 -- has further polarized the commission.

Urquhart and a slim majority of the commissioners say they believe that NCPC should be looking into questions such as "could transportation problems be lessened by federal employes working by computer at home?" and "what provisions can be made now for affordable child care and housing?"

But while the commission has asked experts from around the country to submit papers on how this region should and could function 60 years from now, Greene and others' belief that each locality should do its own long-range planning has slowed the effort.

Not everyone thinks that NCPC urgently needs to be revised and reorganized.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Jack Parsons, associate regional director of the National Park Service. "It's doing just fine."

Parsons said he sees only two options: establish a "czarlike" regional planning commision that would supercede local planning commissions, or keep the NCPC as a largely advisory power.

Greene says that NCPC is "very effective." His one quibble is that it has too much power over District affairs. However, he still says he believes that the commission should have heavy District representation. "Why shouldn't D.C. have an advantage?" he asked. "D.C. is where the White House and most federal agencies are located."

However, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 90 percent of the federal land and 45 percent of the federal employes are outside the District.

As the region expanded and construction boomed, the NCPC did not grow with it.

"The problem is we don't have much power," Baumgaertner said. "It's been whittled away over the years."

In the 1920s, when it was known as the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, planning was in its heyday and so was the commission.

Key political figures sought to have their names linked to the protection of the nation's capital. NCPC acquired parks, oversaw the construction of the Federal Triangle, enhanced the Mall and landscaped highways.

But as cars became more common and new suburbs sprouted, particularly in Virginia, where the newly built Key Bridge (1923) and Memorial Bridge (1932) made access to the District easy, planning efforts faltered.

Virginia and Maryland suburbs did not want a federal body meddling with their land-use decisions. The fierce competition among jurisdictions to attract businesses and a fatter tax base was on.

Around World War II, interest in and money for planning diminished.

Frederic A. Delano, uncle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and NCPC chairman in 1942, showed his frustration -- not unlike that felt by some commissioners today -- in his letter of resignation to FDR.

Delano called the original NCPC the "best that could have been worked out 15 or more years ago," according to an account in the book "Worthy of the Nation: The History of Planning for the National Capital."

Delano said many of his colleagues gave little time to the job and the commission was losing its effectiveness.

He concluded: "Now is an appropriate time to reconsider the setup {of the commission} on a sounder basis."