Some distant day, when they write the story of money and its influence on Congress in 1979, they could begin with the quiet defeat of S. 344, a highway billboard bill, in a Senate subcommittee 10 days ago.

And for a prologue, they might quote from the memo that billboard lobbyist William V. (Red) Reynolds sent to his clients a few months before, dunning them for more money.

"We have been able to pass those contributions along to key senators and congressmen who are responsible for seeing that [our] interests are well represented," Reynolds wrote. "It's that time again!. . . You all know how the game is played in Washington. Need I say more?"

The issue for the billboard companies is compensation when they are forced, under the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, to take a billboard down.

Last year, over the opposition of the Carter administration and others, the companies got Congress to approve amendments to the act guaranteeing and increasing their compensation. That was Round One.

Round Two came this year, when the administration, still resisting, urged Congress not to appropriate any funds for compensation. Congressional friends of the industry interceded, and the House and Senate appropriated $8.5 million.

Round Three was the one involving S. 344, a bill offered up by Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) in a Senate environment and public works subcommittee to allow states to pay compensation or not, as they chose. Stafford lost.

Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), critic of the outdoor advertisers, is blunt. He says the 1965 billboard-removal program, an inspiration of Lady Bird Johnson pushed to passage by her husband, has been gutted into a billboard protection act.

As lobbyist Reynolds' memo suggests, campaign contributions have hardly hurt in this.

The billboard lobby, through careful targeting of contributions to the right members of the right committees, has made its views heard with a success that other larger industries might envy.

The industry's chief trade groups here are the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) and Red Reynolds' Roadside Business Association (RBA). Between them, they represent the major billboard companies and users.

Just as other industries have done, the OAAA and the RBA have set up political action committees (PACs) to provide campaign money to candidates. According to reports at the Federal Election Commission, most of their money in the past three years has gone to members of the Public Works and Appropriations committees -- the ones that have jurisdiction over the billboard programs.

They are bolstered by PACs of other firms with an interest in outdoor advertising -- the 3M Co. of Minnesota and Combined Communications Corp., now owned by the Gannett newspaper chain.

Records at the FEC show that these four PACs contributed at least $69,925 to congressional candidates in 1979, 1978 and 1977. The lion's share went to legislators on the controlling committees.

The industry cemented friendships through another traditional device -- the honorarium, a fee paid to a legislator for a speech or an article.

Last year, according to House and Senate financial disclosure records, 13 legislators received $16,700 in honoraria from the industry. Of the 13, only two were not members of the committees that were at work on billboard bills.

According to the records, leading beneficiaries of the industry's largess are Sen. Jennings Randolph (D.W. Va.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. james J. Howard (D.N.J.), chairman of the House Public Works subcommitte that oversees billboard laws.

Randolph received $3,000 in honoraria last year from OAAA and $600 from the PACs. Howard was paid for addressing Combined Communications executive and got $1,700 in campaign help in the 1977-1979 period.

Running a close third to them is Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), the ranking minority member of Randolph's committee. He had a $2,000 honorarium from OAAA and $600 in PAC contributions.

Howard, the leading recipient of industry assistance, said the money has not changed his thinking on the billboard law. "I want to see billboards taken down, and you can see that I have upheld the beautification program -- not one change in my position," he said.

"Any time anyone gets a donation, they figure the congressman is being bought," he continued. "But I've not voted to slow down the billboard-removal program. I want to see them taken down. And it has been a successful program. We've taken down 500,000 signs since it began."

Howard said the basic issue in the squabbling over billboard-removal is fair compensation, that is, assuring that billboard owners are paid for their losses when a local government moves against them.

Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, OAAA's PAC this year has given money to only two top ranking Appropriations officials -- both at a time when the industry was fighting to get money included in the beautification budget for fiscal 1980.

Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), chairman of House Appropriations, received a $500 contribution when the bill was before his committee. In early October, OAAA gave $500 to Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) when the transportation appropriations subcommittee he heads was dealing with the money bill.

Efforts to query billboard officials this week were unsuccessful. OAAA Washington chief Verne Clark was on vacation and left word that no one else could speak for him because, his secretary said, OAAA had been burned too often.

RBA's Reynolds said his clients forbade him to discuss contributions. He refused to comment on the memo he sent to RBA members on May 3, then abruptly hung up the telephone.

Stafford, although his bill was defeated in subcommittee, says he feels he has a reasonable chance to win on reconsideration before the full committee next week.

"Highway officials from 38 states favor the bill," he says. "American Farm Bureau, the National Conference of State Legislatures, architects, garden clubs, environmentalists, the restaurant association -- they all favor it.

"The only major group against my bill is the billboard industry."