A bill passed by a House committee last week to lift restrictions on the political activities of federal employes has gained widespread support from Washington area political leaders, many of whom could be affected by the resulting change in the political landscape.

For nearly five decades, the political strength of federal workers here has been either muted or channeled into nonpartisan political activities by the Hatch Act restrictions. To many politicians, the 357,552 federal and postal workers in the metropolitan area -- the largest concentration of federal workers in the country -- constitute a largely untapped resource.

"There are many talented people who could and would get involved," said Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer. "It would be a positive infusion of thoughtful and energetic people that both parties can use."

The bill has been backed by the three House members from Maryland who collectively represent the largest number of federal workers in the state -- Republican Constance A. Morella and Democrats Steny H. Hoyer and Thomas McMillen -- as well as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).

The measure also has been endorsed by Kramer, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who oversees 41,000 city workers covered by the Hatch restrictions, and Albert C. Eisenberg, chairman of the Arlington County board.

In Northern Virginia, Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), whose district contains the most federal workers of any district in the nation, is taking a cautious look at the proposal, while Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) has opposed it.

Wolf, a staunch ally of federal workers and retirees and their unions, said last week that the bill could jeopardize the quality of the civil service system by "really politicizing the work force" and leaving employes open to political pressure.

As a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on treasury-postal service-general government, "It would be a positive infusion of thoughtful and energetic people that both parties can use."

-- Sidney Kramer

Wolf's views on civil service issues carry considerable weight. He has urged that the bill be set aside while a special commission studies the issue.

Morella, a member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, which voted unanimously for the bill, insisted that the measure contains adequate safeguards while guaranteeing federal workers the same rights as other citizens.

"I don't see any unusual consequences," she said. "If anything, it would make morale higher."

Since enactment of the Hatch Act 48 years ago, a strong tradition of independent political activism has evolved, with scores of Washington area communities adopting systems of nonpartisan elective offices. In Maryland, for example, the City of Rockville adopted a nonpartisan elective system so that federal workers could take part in local campaigns without violating the Hatch Act.

"I don't think this action {by the House committee} will affect the way we act in Rockville," said Mayor Steven Van Grack. "I think it's important we have an independent way of proceeding."

A similar tradition exists in Northern Virginia, where the Arlingtonians for a Better County (ABC), a nonpartisan coalition that led the effort to desegregate and improve Arlington's public school system, once practically dominated county politics.

More recently, however, the Democratic and Republican parties have asserted their dominance in Northern Virginia. The proposed lifting of the Hatch restrictions could accelerate that trend throughout the area, according to some observers.

"As the state {Democratic} party has come more in line with the national party, it becomes a much more logical place for candidates with political ambitions," said a longtime ABC organizer. "The state mechanism is helpful to them."

A change in the Hatch Act probably would significantly increase the pool of available manpower for political parties, according to Stephen Haner, a spokesman for the Virginia Republican Party who sees some potential dangers for his party. Haner contends that under Democratic rule and without the protection of a Hatch-type law, the state government bureaucracy has become highly politicized.

"State employes bust their buns against us in the state," he said. "They've got a nice little machine down here in Richmond. It's amazing how much leave time they take in October {before elections}.

"Philosophically, I have problems" with changing the Hatch Act, he said. "There are so many government workers. If they do decide to swing one way or another, they can make a big difference in terms of volunteers."

But others dispute that the federal work force is a sleeping political giant waiting to be unleashed. A veteran Montgomery County official, noting how highly professionalized campaigns have become, doubts that a new pool of potential volunteers will make an appreciable difference.

"People who talk about a volunteer campaign live in a dream," she said.