Nobody paid much attention last month when the Certainteed Corp. closed its three-person Washington lobbying office, and nobody was supposed to. Corporate leave-takings rarely rate embossed announcements.

The hoopla was similarly dispensed with when the Sperry and Hutchinson Co. shut down its government relations office here this fall, when Braniff International and AMF Inc. folded their Washington tents in the spring, and when Firestone slipped out of town the first of the year. But out of the little-noticed departures, a rather significant fact emerges: five big corporations haven't ever shut down lobbying offices in a single year before.

Moreover, says Ray Hoeing, director of the Public Affairs Council, which advises companies on how to put their best feet forward in Washington, "you could have more corporate Washington offices closing this year than opening, and that's got to be a first."

Is the bloom off the boom in business lobbying? Is corporate America, after its decade-long pilgrimage into Washington, now ready to return to its factories and boardrooms, secure in the belief that the government is at last in the hands of the friendlies, and is itself retrenching?

Old lobbying hands here caution against making too much of the out-migration. They view it more as quirk than trend; more a series of idiosyncratic corporate decisions than a generalized business response to a sea change in the scope and thrust of government.

As for the five companies, most ascribe the closings to nothing more than belt-tightening in tough economic times. Still, even if the departures do not foreshadow a larger exodus, they at least suggest that the explosive growth in corporate presence here has finally leveled off.

Experts say the job market for Washington reps has been tight for a year; layoffs and job freezes in government relations offices here are not uncommon as corporations retrench, and the only measurable growth in corporate lobbying business is coming in state rather than federal relations.

The rush of corporations to Washington was a phenomenon of the 1970s, a response to Ralph Nader, a liberal Congress and the new activism of the alphabet agencies.

While it is symbolically apt that the leveling off should come now, at a time when a new president and a conservative Congress are trying to whittle away at the reach of government, it's probably a mistake to make too much of that tidy equation.

"The mere fact of deregulation does not do away with the need for Washington representation," notes Wayne Smithey, head of Ford's 21-person Washington office. "For one thing, you've got to be sure your interests are being protected in the type of deregulation that is put into effect."

In terms of legislative victories, it has been a year of unparalleled success for corporate lobbyists. They have been "playing offense rather than defense," in the borrowed jargon of their trade, banding together to support President Reagan's initiatives for tax and budget cuts.

With the climate so friendly and the pickings so plentiful, why should the corporate rush to Washington be slowing down now, some wonder.

As much as anything, it appears to be that every wave crests sooner or later. Most corporations with the inclination and the resources to set up shop in Washington came to town during the 1970s, if they weren't here already.

It was during that decade that membership in Hilton (Dixie) Davis's Breakfast Bunch at the Chamber of Commerce, one of the best gauges of corporate presence in Washington, quadrupled, from 100 to 400.

"I think what you're seeing now is probably a recognition by corporations that have been in town for a while that there are other, less expensive ways to be represented in Washington," said James Post, a professor of management at Boston University, who just completed a study of corporate Washington offices.

Some firms are content to be represented by trade associations, where membership fees are modest; others by law firms, which can get a bit dear when the meter is running at $250 or more per hour, but which still do not approach the expense of an office.

Washington offices come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from the modest one-man "eyes and ears only" operation to the more ambitious full-scale lobbying outfit. Their price tags run from $100,000 up into the millions per year.

Whatever else they do, the one function basic to all Washington offices is information gathering. Companies that have pulled up stakes have all taken steps to cover themselves in that area, be it by hiring a government monitoring firm or simply assigning someone in corporate headquarters to read the Federal Register.

Sam Coats, a vice president of Braniff, concedes that when it comes to maintaining a listening post, there's no substitute for being on the scene. But aside from being a bit behind the information curve, he sees nothing but pluses in his company's decision to move out of Washington this past spring.

"When I come to Washington to talk to people in government, I come as an operating officer of the company and not just as a Washington lobbyist, and I think that gives me more credibility," said Coats. "I am more familiar with the daily working of the company and better able to respond to questions."

The Washington hands agree there's something to Coats' formula for influencing people in the nation's capital, but they say it lacks one crucial ingredient.

"No one in a sales capacity would ever think of going into a market without having a feel for it," says Smithey. "The same should hold true for government relations."

It is the job of people like Smithey to provide corporate executives with that kind of road map to the back power alleys of Washington. Not infrequently, it is also their job to tell the folks back home that some of those alleys are going to be blind. That can lead to strained relations with corporate headquarters.

"Lots of times you'll have the Washington rep report in with the standard Washington wisdom that you can't do this or that for these reasons, and the response from the home office is, 'Well, what the hell is going on in that town?' " says Hoeing, whose group conducts seminars to try to smooth over such communication strains.

An extreme example of those kinds of occupational hazards is the unhappy case of John McCollister and Firestone.

McCollister, a former three-term congressman from Nebraska, took over Firestone's eight-person Washington office in early 1977, when the tire company was in the midst of a struggle with Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over its radial "500" tires.

"They had made it into an adversary proceeding, which I tried to tell them they couldn't win," McCollister recalls. "I wanted them to get out front and be forthcoming."

(Firestone was eventually ordered to recall 13 million tires.)

Not only did company officials ignore McCollister's advice, but they also apparently went out of their way to ignore him. McCollister said executives often came into town and met with governmment officials without letting him know.

He eventually complained to Richard Riley, then Firestone's chairman and chief executive officer, who wrote a memo to top company officials insisting that they check in with the Washington office whenever they were here. That helped for a while, but was being routinely ignored within months, McCollister recalled.

McCollister left Firestone in early 1979 to run a family business, and the man who succeeded him, Charles Hagel, tells similar war stories.

Hagel, who has since left to take a job with the Veterans' Administration, says he kept running into local lawyers who had been hired by the company to lobby or litigate.

"I was blindsided and embarrassed so many times that I finally insisted on being given a list of Washington lawyers who were representing the company," he said. "It was one of the intrigues of working for them that they didn't want me to know, I guess on the theory than information is power."

But Hagel eventually was given a list. It was three pages long and included 15 firms.

Firestone spokesmen declined to comment on the two men's remarks. The company, which suffered heavy losses in 1979 and 1980, said the closing was based on "purely economic" reasons, not on any strained relations.

Although economics were at the roots of the other office closings, there were also some special circumstances as well.

S&H, for example, had just been taken over by Baldwin Industries of Cincinnati, which has never maintained a Washington office and does not feel the need for one. Certainteed is owned by a French company that is being nationalized by the new socialist government.

AMF closed its Washington office after it sold the Harley-Davidson divison, which had created the need for considerable traffic with federal regulators over noise pollution standards. Braniff left following airline deregulation.

Smithey, who heads the Business-Government Relations Council, an organization of Washington corporate lobbyists, believes that two recent developments in the lobbying trade, the explosive growth of corporate political action committees and the use of so-called "grass-roots" lobbying techniques, will increase rather than diminish the role of the Washington lobbyist.

Corporations that make a practice of giving campaign contributions need advice from Washington on where to spread the wealth, he said, and companies that go to the trouble of generating mass letter-writing campaigns on a particular issue are unlikely to do without the follow-up and detail that individual lobbying contacts can provide.

But if Washington lobbyists are here to stay, their number is not fated constantly to keep growing.

Hoeing, who provides an informal clearinghouse for government relations jobs, says that in the past year he has heard of three openings on the state level for every one in Washington. "Firms that are already in Washington are replicating that model on the state level," notes Post of BU.

You could call it the new federalism.