One congressman sees a return to a "plantation mentality." Another says the District of Columbia is trapped in "a halfway house between servitude and autonomy." And a former D.C. official likens the city's relationship with Congress to a form of "child abuse," with angry legislators taking out their frustrations on the District at no political cost.

But Mayor Marion Barry dismisses the city's recent battles with Congress as a minor irritant. He says he is willing to accept occasional interference by the Congress as the price of preserving some measure of self-government.

One thing is certain: After six years of limited home rule, the District is confronting a new, more meddlesome attitude on Capitol Hill that is gradually changing the balance of local power in the nation's capital.

Spurred on by special-interest lobbies, a new group of more conservative members of Congress has shown little hesitation in dictating to the city on matters large and small, ranging from how the District hires police officers to where it can dump its sludge.

"We are the local government here," said Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.), a onetime presidential candidate who led the successful drive earlier this month to overturn the city's sexual assault bill. "Congress is the local government.

"We have a responsibility to review everything the D.C. City Council does -- everything. People might quarrel with how well we do our job, but there isn't much they can do about it," Crane said.

Rep. David Daniel Marriott, a third-term Republican from Salt Lake City, agreed. "The D.C. City Council isn't speaking for America," Marriott said. "We ought not allow that group of 13 good souls to make policy for this city. Only Congress has the right to decide what kind of activity we want going on in Washington, D.C.

"If they don't like it," said Marriott, referring to citizens of the District, "they can move to Maryland or Virginia."

The rejection of the sexual assault bill has caused concern in many quarters that Congress may be reverting to an earlier era of what some considered colonial rule over Washington.

While the current disputes are a far cry from the days when congressmen like John McMillan of South Carolina and Joel Broyhill of Virginia ran the city with an iron hand, they nevertheless provide a grim reminder that it is Congress that defines the boundaries of home rule.

Barry and some of his top aides insist that the lopsided vote against the sexual assault bill was an aberration. But interviews with more than 35 city officials, community leaders and members of Congress suggest the emergence of a trend.

The new attitude signals an abrupt reversal of what had been a gradual movement toward greater autonomy for the city that began in 1967 and culminated in 1973, when Congress granted the District the right to elect its own mayor and city council for the first time in nearly a century.

Congress retained final control over the D.C. budget and any issues thought to involve a federal interest, while city officials would have charge of exclusively local matters. The first home-rule government took office on Jan. 2, 1975.

Although Congress frequently cut the city's budget and packed it with restrictions on how the money could be spent, there were few major battles over local legislation -- until this year.

Last November's congressional elections swept into office a new wave of conservative lawmakers, and many of them apparently have new and very definite views of how Congress should govern the nation's capital.

Moreover, many moderate members of Congress are unwilling to take the political heat on the city's behalf in the face of intense lobbying on some more controversial bills by a growing number of special-interest groups like the Moral Majority, which led the drive against the sexual assault bill.

The result has been a rapid-fire series of setbacks on a number of diverse issues -- some of which tentatively have been reversed by a Senate subcommittee.

For example, representatives from Virginia and Pennsylvania used parliamentary maneuvers to block the city from shipping its sludge to their home districts. The House adopted an amendment that bars the Barry administration from using a lottery plan to hire more minority police officers. And a House D.C. subcommittee set aside last November's vote to legalize some forms of gambling by knocking out the funds for the city to set up a daily lottery.

"Initially there was some reluctance for Congress to interfere with the city's affairs, but now they're showing less and less restraint," said former D.C. auditor Matthew S. Watson. "It's like child abuse: congressmen who are frustrated and feeling pressure from all sides take it out on the District."

Mayor Barry maintained in an interview last week that these defeats have obscured a more positive overall picture of the relationship between the city and Congress.

"I want to disabuse you of the notion that home rule is in trouble," Barry said. "It's had some setbacks. But since I've been mayor, we've sent 211 bills to the Congress and only two have been vetoed. I'd be more upset if our budget was being tampered with every day."

Barry said the fact that Congress appears ready to grant his request for a full $336 million federal payment, and has not cut the overall city budget as sharply as in recent years, is a sign that his relations with the key committee chairmen are in excellent shape.

"From time to time, you're going to get the Congress sending us a message that they're still in charge of the city," the mayor said. "These are new people, conservatives who believe that our city ought to be the way George Washington put it together. They have the legal right to overturn anything we do. I know it, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."

Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), who chairs the House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, is not as sanguine. "There is a plantation mentality among some members who believe they have to be the overlord because people in the District can't handle their own affairs," Dixon said.

In fact, the more celebrated legislative battles tend to overshadow the fact that members of Congress seeking to impose their own views on the city regularly curtail the District's authority.

Year after year, Congress decides not only how much the District of Columbia can spend, but, in some instances, precisely how the city can spend it. In the fine print of this year's D.C. budget, for example, the House has explicitly barred the city from:

Buying more than 25 new police cars.

Hiring more than 32,608 employes.

Charging patients more than $12 a visit at public health clinics.

Spending more than $225,000 on travel outside the Washington area.

Boycotting any state that has not passed the Equal Rights Amendment, or engaging in "publicity or propaganda" on behalf of any legislation pending before Congress or the states.

Providing free collection of garbage -- including "ashes and miscellaneous refuse" -- for hotels, businesses and apartment houses.

Installing meters in city taxicabs, a perennial provision that preserves an archaic zoned system in which a ride from Capitol Hill to most parts of downtown Washington costs only $1.55.

For 23 years, Congress has barred the District from paying more than 2 cents per kilowatt hours for street lighting. When the Potomac Electric Power Co. won a legal ruling that the city would have to pay the same higher rates as everyone else, Congress simply ordered the District not to pay the $3 million court judgment. Pepco lobbyists finally persuaded Congress to drop the ban last November.

In many cases, those who wield power over the city often react impulsively to their own experiences as local residents. Hardly a week goes by in which members of the House District Committee are not beseiged by complaints from their colleagues whose cars have been ticketed or booted for being parked illegally, and they know how to vent their anger.

An aide to Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.) recalled a time when a liberal Democrat cornered the nonvoting delegate about an appropriations bill and said: "Walter, I love you and I love the District. But dammit, they just towed my car and I'm going to vote against the city on this one."

In similar fashion, Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.), the ranking minority member of the House District Committee, said he recently had to appease a senior congressman who was unable to sell his house because the city couldn't find his three-year-old water bill. McKinney said he had to contact City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers to obtain the overdue bill for his colleague.

Even Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), generally considered one of the city's stronger supporters in Congress, added his opposition to the District's effort to launch legal gambling. Maryland has its own lucrative lottery that draws millions of dollars each year from Washington residents.

It is setbacks like these that cause Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), chairman of the House District Committee, to refer to the city as "a halfway house between servitude and autonomy."

Another unexpected force has been challenging the actions of the home rule government in recent months. Washington labor unions, business groups, religious leaders and civic organizations, unable to get their way at the local level, are turning more frequently to the old practice of running to Capitol Hill to get relief.

When the city adopted a minority-hiring plan for public safety jobs, for instance, it was the unions representing D.C. police and firefighters that complained to Congress. When the City Council was still debating sharp cuts in the costly workman's compensation program, lobbyists for local labor unions were taking congressional staff members to lunch to outline their objections.

And when the council passed the sexual assault bill, the first request for Congress to overturn it came from local Baptist ministers and citizens groups.

"I reject the idea that the elected officials know what's best for the people of this city,"said Everett Scott, a spokesman for the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, a longtime coalition of neighborhood organizations that opposed the bill. Scott said the group supports home rule. But, he added, "We have a right as citizens to go to whoever we can to redress our grievances."

"The principle of home rule is only sacred to The Washington Post and some D.C. politicians," said Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), who presided over the city's budget for two years as an appropriations subcommittee chairman. "I get far more calls from D.C. residents who say, 'Go get 'em.' And the business community in particular looks at Congress as the last line of defense."

The conservative tide has swept out some of the city's local allies, such as former representative Herbert E. Harris (D-Va.). Harris has been replaced by Republican Stanford E. Parris, who has become one of the most frequent thorns in the city's side. It was Parris, for example, who held up the D.C. budget for weeks to block the city's plan to ship its sludge to Fairfax County.

"I use any means I can get my hands on to get the city to focus attention on these problems," Parris said. "If there's one problem I have with the Barry administration, it's that they tend to be indifferent as to how their proposals play on Capitol Hill."

Several legislators said they frequently detect an undercurrent of race when Congress discusses the problems of the District's black urban government. Some contend that city officials are often the first to raise the issue during a dispute, but most observers say that this attitude isn't nearly as overt or as widespread on the Hill as it was 20 years ago.

"The Moral Majority types won't say that you supported the right of self-determination for a primarily black city -- that would be too blatantly racist," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "Instead they attack you for throwing money away or for advocating a sexual Sodom and Gomorrah in D.C."

Those legislators who take up the District's cause invariably feel the heat back home. Leahy, who until this year presided over the Senate D.C. budget subcommittee, says his support for the city's right to spend local money on abortions was used against him in ads in last year's election.

Even the White House has adopted a different posture toward home rule. Former president Jimmy Carter frequently supported the District on the Hill, and in 1977 named a task force headed by vice president Walter Mondale that endorsed a list of recommendations, ranging from full voting representation in Congress to allowing the mayor to appoint local judges.

President Reagan said during the 1980 campaign that he was leaning against such measures, and a White House spokesman said recently that Reagan has taken no position on home rule and has no plans to look into the subject.

At least one group is not at all surprised by the recent setbacks on Capitol Hill -- the D.C. Statehood Party, which actively campaigned against the home rule measure in 1973.

"I liken the city's status to that of a slave who has had both of his arms and feet manacled," said Charles I. Cassell, a longtime statehood activist. "When the master unshackles one foot, the slave is expected to be grateful. But the slave is not free."