Last October, a House subcommittee headed by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) voted to subpoena a batch of documents from the Environmental Protection Agency. But while Dingell plotted strategy, another subcommittee quickly carried its own subpoena to the House floor, putting Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.) at the forefront of a highly publicized confrontation.

As the battle reached fever pitch, few members of Congress could restrain themselves from joining Dingell and Levitas in the rush to investigate the embattled agency. One outraged legislator after another went before the klieg lights to demand reams of data, overwhelming EPA's 33-member legislative office and bringing the agency to a virtual standstill.

By the time the EPA agreed to make available the most sensitive documents in the contempt-of-Congress case Friday night, six subcommittees had entered the fray and more than a few press secretaries were working overtime.

These overlapping investigations tell a great deal about the way Congress has changed over the last decade. The legislative branch has divided and subdivided itself until there are 167 committees and subcommittees in the House and 129 in the Senate, each a private fiefdom for a chairman who can churn out press releases about his panel's exploits.

This proliferation has fueled a tremendous growth in congressional staff. There are about 19,000 staff members on the Hill, more than double the number in the early 1970s, and they in turn generate more correspondence, more subpoenas and more hearings.

In carving the political turf into ever smaller pieces, many subcommittees share jurisdiction over the same agencies. No fewer than 44 committees and subcommittees, for example, have some jurisdictional claim on the EPA. That makes it hard enough in normal times to approve routine budgets, let alone coordinate a complicated investigation.

What the recent press releases don't say, however, is that some of the subcommittees consist of just one or two staff members.

While most observers agree that Congress has been doing a better job of overseeing how the laws it passes are administered, even some of the EPA sleuths admit that things are getting out of hand.

"There isn't a need for so many investigations," said Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), whose Energy and Commerce subcommittee on commerce, transportation and tourism started its own probe recently. "Obviously, everyone's protecting his turf. But it also reflects a sense of popular revulsion in the Congress. EPA's attention is only focused when you punch them in the nose."

Florio said he helped draft the 1980 law that created the hazardous waste cleanup program that is at the center of the investigations. "I wrote the 'Superfund' bill," he said. "We're the committee that Superfund came out of." Other panels less familiar with the law, Florio said, "can be bamboozled very easily."

"Obviously, Florio's problem is that his jurisdiction is going out the window," said an investigator from a competing subcommittee. "He knocks himself out writing the damn law and then he doesn't get to do any of the fun stuff. He wants to show he's as aggressive as everyone else."

All this has taken its toll on Lee Modesitt, EPA's legislative director.

"Levitas asked for all the data on 160 hazardous waste sites," said Modesitt, who arranged for senior officials to testify at 84 hearings last year. "Dingell asked for all the data on three sites. Florio asked for all the data on 15 sites in New Jersey. This has meant a whole lot of people spending a whole lot of hours away from their programs in enforcement and hazardous waste."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the EPA, but so does the Public Works and Transportation Committee. Any change in environmental law must pass both committees, a requirement that obviously slows and complicates the process.

Dingell's subcommittee on oversight and investigations at Energy and Commerce is the largest in the House, with 18 investigators and a $650,000 annual budget. The panel has held more than two dozen hearings on toxic waste since 1979. But when the EPA refused to turn over documents on three hazardous waste sites last October, Dingell did not pursue his subpoena because the 97th Congress was nearing adjournment.

"We wanted to let the thing mature," said subcommittee counsel Michael F. Barrett. "It was a judgment call . . . . We were very narrowly focused on those three sites, and Levitas was looking at the broader issue."

Levitas, for his part, wasted no time when his smaller Public Works subcommittee on investigations and oversight was denied EPA documents on toxic waste dumps in the New York area. Rather than wait until the following year and a new Congress, which would have meant starting the subpoena process all over again, his panel quickly got the House to vote a contempt citation against EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch.

"I knew the administration's strategy was to delay," Levitas said. "In order for us to do anything, by God, we had to move before this Congress adjourned."

In the meantime, Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) had taken a sleepy Science and Technology subcommittee on natural resources, agriculture research and environment and was using it to investigate personnel problems at EPA. At a hearing last November, Scheuer surprised then-EPA hazardous waste cleanup chief Rita M. Lavelle by confronting her with allegations that she tried to dismiss agency "whistle blower" Hugh B. Kaufman.

Lavelle denied trying to fire Kaufman, but Scheuer later announced that he was considering referring Lavelle's testimony to the Justice Department for a perjury investigation. Subcommittee investigator George Kopp said he welcomes the other probes because "we don't have the staff. You're talking to the entire staff."

Third-term Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) joined the battle after taking over a Government Operations subcommittee on environment, energy and natural resources. Synar inherited a feisty staff from former chairman Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), and last week he asked for a big batch of EPA documents, much of which was subpoenaed by Dingell two days later.

"It's only logical that we should be involved in it," Synar said. "We have direct jurisdiction over EPA, and we're looking at how the agency operates. We'll be in charge of this long after the dust settles." He said the EPA could resolve any coordination problems "by making five copies of the material."

Over in the Republican Senate, Chairman Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) decided that his Environment and Public Works Committee also needed to examine the controversy. "If anyone is the father of Superfund, it's Stafford," said legislative aide Victor Maerki. He said the committee would schedule a quick hearing, but that the timing "will depend on Gorsuch's schedule. We presume she's going to be in big demand."

This wasn't enough for Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who asked that the Senate permanent investigations subcommittee get involved. "We are not just jumping on this bandwagon as of late," said Hart spokeswoman Kathy Bushkin. "The . . . House committees are all fragmented; they're all doing a different piece of it. We decided that if there were to be one solid, coherent investigation, it would have to be done here."