Empires develop in the strangest of ways, and, whether or not he intended it, Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) has got himself an empire.

The sun, in fact, never sets on Burton's empire.

The charms on this political bracelet reach from Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas in the far Pacific to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in the Atlantic.

In one way or another, these tropical remnants of other days of empire are part of the United States, with varying kinds of political ties. But in the congressional scheme of things, Burton comes closer than any other member to being their lord and master.

If Guam wants a debt excused, the man to see is Burton. If the Virgin Islands need tax-law changes, Burton is where they begin. When American Samoa wants a seat in the House, Burton can arrange it.

Burton comes to this power -- some would call it a headache -- by virtue of his chairmanship of the Interior subcommittee on parks and insular affairs. Almost by default, Burton became His Lordship because few other members care that much about the Islands.

In truth, this is not at all odd on Capitol Hill. Dozens of relatively obscure subcommittees, dealing with often obscure issues, are the seats of little sub-governments and sources of imposing power.

Milk and poultry people, for example, must deal with Rep. Alvin Baldus (D-Wis.), who heads a subcommittee on dairy and poultry matters. Bankers must go to Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), who chairs a domestic monetary panel. And so on, through House and Senate.

So it is with Burton and his subcommittee on parks and territories. The rapid expansion of the national park system is due in part to Burton's belief that more is better. Conservationists love him for it. His generosity with the territories works similarly.

Parks and territories are important enough to Burton that he has passed up Education and Labor subcommittee chairmanships that would have given him possibly wider outlets for his other liberal pursuits.

But the territorial job has led to some fascinating friendships and complications, not unusual for a man regarded as one of the more skilled politicians in the House.

Some examples:

For months, as Burton worked to win approval of a seat in the House and more federal aid for American Samoa, his news releases praised the work of Eni Hunkin, a subcommittee assistant. Hunkin quit his job in July to run for the seat he and Burton got approved -- an event that has ruffled feelings in the Pacific.

Hunkin's opponent, Fofo I. F. Sunia, who represents American Samoa in Washington, was miffed about Burton's seeming partisanship, and told him so. "We parted friends," Sunia said. "But politics in Samoa is not like San Francisco [Burton's home]. It would be a mistake for one to think he can come in and throw his weight around."

House rules allow members to have field offices only in their home districts. But Guam's delegate. Antonio B. Won Pat, a close Burton ally, has a home-district office and another one in San Francisco -- rent paid by Burton from his own office expense allowance.

Won Pat's San Francisco office, in a corner of Burton's district quarters, is staffed by Nancy Larson, who formerly worked for Burton in Washington. Her job, she said, is to deal with federal regional offices handling Guam programs, although the Guam government has an office in the same federal building doing ostensibly the same job.

Politicians and editors on Guam and the Virgin Island reacted angrily when Burton warned recently that defeat of Won Pat would cause a backlash against Guam in Congress. He cited a decline in aid to the Virgin Islands after Melvin H. Evans, a Republican, was elected to the House in 1978. Evans, successor to a Democratic friend of Burton, took the remark personally, as did many islanders.

Around the House there is a belief, well-founded or not, that Burton's sway over the territorial delegates is so powerful that he is assured their votes on mainland issues important to him. Recalling his one-vote defeat by Jim Wright of Texas for the majority leadership in 1977, Burton said there was "an occasion I regretted that one vote was not in our caucus."

On that score, one of the tales that keeps surfacing is that Burton was so piqued by his caucus defeat that he decided to get the missing vote by extending a seat to Samoa. But the Virgin Islands then sent a Republican to the House, which reduced Burton's backers in the Democratic caucus by one.

Actually, Burton said recently, the idea of a seat for Samoa had broad bipartisan support and he delayed a final vote on it as long as he could "to cut the crap about me running against Jim Wright."

But the stories get around and leave their mark on territorial officials who are extrasensitive to "outside" political ploys or hints of them. A Samoan government official -- not Fofo Sunia -- described Burton as "sort of a godfather or the territories on the Hill. We call him the Idi Amin of Washington."

That's somewhat harsh, for by and large Burton is given good marks on Capitol Hill for his overseeing of territorial matters. The rap, if any, is that he will give them anything that's not tied down.

Burton's view is that if they're under the American flag -- which they are -- the islands are entitled to the same federal benefits mainlanders get. He has worked to extend dozens of federal programs to them, from health and education to agriculture and job training.

"Over the last 10 years we have done everything on our subcommittee in a nonpartisan way. We have kept partisan politics out of it. Majority and minority staffers are interchangeable, and that's one reason it has worked so well," Burton said.

The commonly quoted membership figure for the House of Representatives is 435. Actually, it has 439 members, and next year it will have 440, after American Samoa's new representative is seated.

That the territorial delegates usually don't get counted is reflective of the confusing and complex relationship the islands have with the United States.

A major difference between the mainland states and the islands is that although islanders are either citizens or "nationals" they pay no federal income taxes, they cannot vote in presidential elections, they have no U.S. senators.

Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia are represented in the House by elected delegates who have most of the customary powers and perquisites, except for a vote on floor legislation. Samoa, with its 33,000 population, will have the fifth non-voting seat in the House.

The delegates' job here essentially is the same as any other representative's -- to look after their districts' interests and needs. The territories send little revenue to Washington, and the delegates become supplicants, seeking more federal help to solve local social problems and to shore up fledging local governments.

Their dependence on federal aid, federal jobs and defense expenditures is great. And friendships with the congressional powers are extra-important to the delegates in securing help for the islands.

That image was reemphasized at a Senate hearing late last month as the Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard witnesses from the territories respectfully plead for more favors from Washington.

The hearing room was jammed with observers, some of them native and some of them slickly dressed Washington lawyers who represent territorial interests. The witness list included such mellifluous names as Won Pat, Sunia, Pangelinan, Uludong, Juan Luis, testifying on various territorial aid proposals.

Won Pat, for instance, wanted a federal loan to Guam to be excused -- he had gotten it through the House with Burton's help and had trumpeted the victory to constituents in his flashy newsletter.

"To turn a loan into a grant is very difficult to do," said Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who is roughly Burton's Senate counterpart, "We'll try to do it for you in committee, Tony."

Sunia was there to urge the committee to support more federal assistance programs for Samoa, such as agricultural aid that would stimulate tropical crop production and reduce Samoa's dependence on imports.

"We're going to try to take care of your concern," Johnston said.

Edward Pangelinan, the spokesman here for the Northern Mariana Islands, another link in the territorial alliance with Washington, spoke in support of a program that would spur development.

"I am very proud of the Northern Marianas and what you have accomplished in a few short years," Johnston said. He was alluding to the U.N. trusteeship arrangement through which the United States administers the islands. The United States legislates for the Northern Marianas, but does not claim or exercise sovereignty there.

Johnston, Burton and Sens. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and James A. McClure (R-Udaho) are among the more active legislators on territorial issues. Their views make front-page news in the islands.

"It is a fascinating area to those of us who are involved," Johnson said, "and, yes, it is almost as exclusive a preserve as you will find in Congress." "

Johnston, like Burton, said he is "very sensitive to their sensitivity toward colonialism and to the need to give them a maximum of independence. . . . but a difference between Phil and myself is that I don't have the unrestrained exuberance of Phil toward giving everything away." d

Even less exuberant is McClure, who went out of his way at the recent hearing to deliver sermonettes to witnesses about the dangers of federal aid stifling native incentive and increasing their economic dependence on Washington.

Tony Won Pat is a tiny, energetic man of 70, a health-food addict who gobbles vitamin pills by the handful. His official biography describes him as "a humble and unassuming man."

He talks a good deal about the same sort of incentive and independence that McClure champions, but he may have no equal on Capitol Hill in sending federal bacon home.

Won Pat's newsletter, a professionally produced tabloid that easily could be mistaken for a National Lampoon version of a newsletter, headlines his fiscal triumphs as though he had discovered Sutter's Mill.

"I have a lot of friends here," he said recently. "Without powerful friends here you can't get anywhere. Phil Burton is a friend. If it were not for Phil, Guam would get nothing."

Between Phil and Tony, according to the spring newsletter, Guam is fiscal 1980 got "the staggering sum of $99.7 million in grants. . . . In this day of tight budgets, winning nearly $100 million in grants -- not loans -- is not easy matter. It certainly doesn't come from enemies."

A sampler of headlines from the same issue: Guam Strikes It Rich!; Food Stamps Keep Coming; Won Pat Saves 101 Civilian Base Jobs; Fishing Fund Continues; Fly Home to Guam Cheap; Free Medical Texts Shipped to Guam; No Energy Tax for Guamanians; A National Cemetery for Guam's Veterans.

Guam, 9,000 miles from Washington in the western Pacific, has about 85,000 residents. The island (along with Puerto Rico) was ceded to the United States by Spain after the War of 1898, and Guamanians were granted U.S. citizenship in 1950.

In 1972, Congress authorized a seat in the House for Guam. Won Pat, who had been in Washington, since 1965 as his government's lobbyist, was elected to the seat. A Democrat, he and Burton became pals on the Interior Committee, and have worked their island magic ever since.

Then last spring, in his brassy, irrepressible way, Burton walked an extra mile for Won Pat -- or thought he did -- and the spaghetti hit the fan in Guam as well as the Virgin Islands.

In an interview with the Gannett News Service, Burton said Congress could turn against Guam if Won Pat were defeated in November. He claimed that the Virgin Islands lost $60 million in federal aid in this Congress because popular Democrat Ron De Lugo had been replaced by the Republican Evans.

"Won Pat is walking away with the kitchen sink, and they're attacking him?" Burton said. "You've got to wonder what kind of prism their judgment is filtered through. . . . If the people of Guam feel they haven't done well enough under Tony, I think Congress will decide they've been on the wrong track and had better correct it."

Guamanians, of course, speak English, and could not misunderstand what Burton was saying. As Won Pat put it, "They didn't take kindly to Phil's remarks."

Gannett's Pacific Daily News then editorialized that Burton's "latest outburst leaves him looking like a neocolonialist. . . . We have the outrageous case of a ranking congressmen telling us who to elect because that is the person he would prefer to deal with."

That was tough enough, but Burton -- conceding he was quoted accurately -- forgot that Gannett also owns a paper in the Virgin Islands, which reprinted his disclosure of the suppossed congressional retaliation for Evans' election.

A St. Croix paper editorialized that Burton's remarks about the ability of delegate Evans were "disgusting and insensitive." And, like the paper on Guam, it said local voters could make up their own minds without help from an overbearing mainlander.

"I don't exculpate myself," Burton said the other day. "I didn't know Gannett went to the Virgin Islands, and I didn't want to belt Melvin Evans. It's very difficult for me to know how to respond to these things. I try to walk the narrow line, but on occasion I don't make it."

Nobody ever said running an empire was a cakewalk.