By law and tradition, government employees depend on politicians to set their pay and even tell them how many days off they can take when sick, or on vacation.

The two groups sometimes make strange and uneasy bedfellows. Outside the Washington area, politicians and those they represent often find government strange, remote or frightening, and suspect anybody who makes it a career.

Because most members of Congress, the civil service board of directors, represent people beyond the Beltway, even simple changes in civil service rules, benefits or procedures can be a federal case. Politicians often view changes -- that wouldn't raise an eyebrow in industry -- as a ripoff of the taxpayers, or a bureaucratic plot to get more.

Because politicians get and keep their jobs based on the number of votes they get from the majority who often resent those on the $85 billion federal payroll, the congressional stewardship over the civil service frequently reflects regular taxpayers' resentment and misunderstanding of the federal workers.

But this could be the year that civil servants break away, a little, from the system that makes them take their begging bowls to Congress whenever they need something. Examples:Congress is expected to expand a federal leave-sharing program. Under it, workers can donate excess sick or annual leave to an agency bank. Those who need the extra time off because of family or medical emergencies could draw on it. Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) are cosponsoring the bill to force agencies to set up leave-sharing programs, which are now limited to a few small test projects.

The Ackerman-Wolf bill would also permit tests of leave-sharing banks among agencies. The Reagan administration supports the concept -- which is most unbureaucratic -- in principle. Federal workers are now loaning one another money, and helping colleagues' children get scholarships. Two years ago the unusual self-help program was launched. Many felt it wouldn't work with civil servants. The idea was to raise money through Combined Federal Campaigns, using it for loans, grants or school tuition.

Originally the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund was in a cubbyhole office with letterhead stationery. It raised a few thousand dollars from participation in 20 CFC campaigns. Now it has an office at 513 C St. NW (543-8685), and took in $360,000 in pledges last year. In 1988 it plans to be in all 500 CFC campaigns and to raise $800,000.

Last year FEEA says it made or arranged for $922,000 low-interest educational loans, gave or loaned $140,000 to workers in need and gave out $97,000 in scholarships to 127 people, including 21 children of Washington area federal workers.

The acid test for leave and loan programs is in what workers do with them. If more people give than get, everybody wins. But if they become simply clearinghouses for a few givers and a lot of takers, it will reinforce what many claim: that civil servants can take it but they can't dish it out.