David M. Pomerantz was a long way from his home in Encino, Calif., but by no means a wide-eyed kid when he saw his first startling portrait of Washington at work.

It was Tuesday, Dec. 14, 1982, and Pomerantz, a philosophy professor on a year's fellowship to work as a congressional aide, was headed for the House chamber with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). The question on the floor was whether to continue funding for the controversial Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Outside the chamber door, lobbyists lined the hallways -- craning their necks to spot various arriving members, and pumping a thumb up or down to signal the vote they wanted.

"I said, 'God! I hope this isn't the basis for a decision,' " Pomerantz recalled the other day.

It wasn't, Pomerantz said he now believes -- and not just because the House voted that day to cut off funding, as he had hoped it would. No longer a learned but distant observer, Pomerantz says he has found more logic and integrity in America's legislature than might at first meet the eye of a schoolhouse skeptic.

Nearly three years after the fellowship ended, Pomerantz is still here. He abandoned his academic perch at the State University of New York in Stony Brook for a staff aide's position on the powerful House Rules Committee.

Pomerantz's conversion is not unique. Each year dozens of professionals from a variety of disciplines come here, under the aegis of various fellowship programs, to experience Washington up close and in person.

Most programs provide their fellows with some level of living expenses, and some pay transportation costs. In return, congressional offices and committees have expert staff assistance available to them for periods of up to a year. Even when the expertise is undeveloped, a fellow is desirable to Hill offices as a warm body who doesn't have to be paid a salary.

Fellowship sponsors include groups representing anthropologists, chemists, geophysicists, microbiologists and photobiologists; the black and Hispanic congressional caucuses; the Conference Board, a nonprofit business research group; and the American Political Science Association.

What is relatively different about Pomerantz, however, is that he comes from what many may consider one the most unlikely areas of academia: He is one of 13 congressional fellows who have come here over the past six years under the sponsorship of the Delaware-based American Philosophical Association.

The notion of philosopher-fellows in Congress may evoke images of high-minded, toga-clad graybeards holding forth mysteriously from the labyrinth of portals off the Capitol rotunda.

Hardly.

Congressional philosophers themselves are the first to claim their legitimate place in the halls of power and public policy. "Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great, for God's sake," said former philosopher-fellow Andrea King, "and Plato was tutor of some tyrant in Syracuse," Dion.

King did a doctoral dissertation at Georgetown University entitled "Benevolent Dictatorship in Plato's Republic," and was a congressional fellow last year on Gephardt's staff. When her year was up she decided to stay on as a legislative aide instead of returning to her teaching post at Goucher College in Towson.

Others have used their fellowships as a chance to continue research, dabble in unrelated fields of study, or launch careers in Washington outside of Congress.

David Cole, 38, for instance, used to spend time discoursing with students at the University of Minnesota-Duluth on such questions as "what the mental life of animals is like, whether there's a world that exists independently of our perception and whether computers will ever be able to have a mind."

Now, as a fellow in the office of Rep. Hank Brown (R-Colo.), he is working on railroad deregulation, a longtime interest. "I was looking for a fiscal conservative in favor of deregulation who wasn't a religious fanatic," Cole said. "It ruled out an awful lot of people."

If Pomerantz looks closely in the corridors, he may find another philosopher and onetime fellow trying to buttonhole the members. Constance Kagan did a stint with Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) four years ago and stayed in Washington, where she is a lobbyist for various animal rights organizations.

And King admits more than a passing interest in the possibility that Gephardt's still unannounced bid for the presidency in 1988 could succeed and put her in a position to be Philosopher to the President. "It would certainly be a way that I could make some contribution to the American public policy process that most philosophers aren't able to do," King said.

Gephardt welcomes such a post as "a good idea." Mention the notion of an Official Philosopher to the House of Representatives, however, and House Historian Raymond W. Smock is of a different mind.

"I think we've gone far enough with a poet laureate," Smock said. "I don't know if we need an official thinker. This country is too big and too diverse to have an official philosopher . . . . The closest thing we've ever had to an official philosopher was James Madison, who wrote the Constitution."

About half the 13 philosopher-fellows that have come to Washington have stayed, and nearly all have come away from the 10-month experience with more respect for the Hill's institutions.

APA makes no claims of having molded landmark legislation. While Kagan has become a lobbyist, no philosopher-fellow has yet made the big leap from policy adviser to policy maker.

The oldest fellowship program has two such alumni, however. Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, and former Rep. Arlen Erdahl (R-Minn.) are ex-fellows of the American Political Science Association.

Some congressional fellows in the sciences also have gone on to posts in the executive branch. Thomas E. Cooper, who served as an American Society of Mechanical Engineers fellow in 1975 on the House Armed Services Committee, is now Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research, Development and Logistics.

Alton G. Keel Jr., a former Senate Armed Services Committee fellow of the American Institute for Aeronautics, Astroaviation and Astronautics, is associate director for National Security and International Affairs of the Office of Management and Budget.

Frederick M. Bernthal, an American Physical Society fellow for then senator Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) in 1978, is a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"The chief benefit" of the fellowships, says Stephen D. Nelson of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "is probably introducing year after year a new cadre of very bright people who find out firsthand what the public policy process is all about and can find ways of integrating their own training . . . with the political process."