As a young couple in Dallas in the early 1960s, Ritchie and Carol Ann Coryell were Republican political junkies supporting Barry Goldwater for president. After moving to Northern Virginia, Carol Ann Coryell rose to be elected 8th District Republican chairman, but Ritchie Coryell stayed out of the party altogether.

As a geophysicist with the National Science Foundation, he was prohibited under the Hatch Act from engaging in partisan politics.

Ritchie Coryell acknowledges frustrations at times, but unlike members of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, who unanimously voted last week to lift those Hatch Act restrictions, he fears that a change in the law might invite coercion of federal workers and threaten the political neutrality of the civil service system.

"As in a lot of life, we have a tradeoff," he said. " . . . In the long run, we would be better off {staying out of politics and} applying ourselves to the civil service."

Coryell is one of a quiet group of federal employes who believe that a ban on partisan politics is a useful fixture of Washington life.

While supporters of the change contend that the Hatch Act is un- necessarily broad and unfairly applied, that it wrongly restricts employes' constitutional rights and is so vague that employes censure their own activities to stay out of trouble, opponents cite a list of fearsome consequences as well.

Lifting Hatch Act restrictions, these critics say, could affect public confidence in government, make what is merely permitted in the way of political activity what is actually expected, increase suspicion of career bureaucrats by incoming administrations, and make policing coercion almost impossible.

Kenneth T. Blaylock, president of the 180,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, sees no problem with allowing federal workers to run for office, manage campaigns and solicit contributions on their own time. It is "pure political rights," he said.

"We still have 3.5 million people in this country who lack political freedom," Blaylock said. "The fact they work for the federal government doesn't make them a different animal."

But Hugh Heclo, a former Brookings Institution senior fellow who is now Robinson professor of government at George Mason University, says efforts to loosen restrictions on partisan political activities are entirely wrong.

"We should be moving in the opposite direction, tightening up," he said.

"We have had a number of administrations that were determined to get control of the bureaucracy for their own purposes," he said, and as a result the work force has been "whiplashed, until a lot of the good ones got out." If the Hatch Act is loosened, "it will give them another reason to run for cover," he said.

"The thing I was impressed by both in Washington and in Albany was how close to the surface the political pressure was," said Alan K. (Scotty) Campbell, who was civil service chief under President Carter. "The career service needs protection from being expected to contribute money to fund-raising events, which is often where the pressure comes."

Campbell said the "culture" of the government helps, because it supports and honors -- at least in theory -- politically neutral behavior. The other protection federal workers have, he said, is the Hatch Act.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), chairwoman of the civil service subcommittee and a leading champion of changing the law, said: "Our bill clearly protects workers from any top-down pressure. I am very short of patience with these arguments about the politicization of the work force because some employe is allowed to run for office on his own time."

"I think the present Hatch Act is just right," said a high-ranking civil servant, who asked that his name not be used. "I've been right up there at the level where the career people rub up against the political people, and attempts at coercion go on right now. If they try it with the Hatch Act, think what it would be like without it.

"If your boss is running for political office, or helping somebody run, it definitely puts the federal employe in jeopardy of being expected to provide support for electioneering, contributions," he said. "The average civil servant wants the Hatch Act to hide behind."

Clearly, many federal employes disagree. Rickie Hunter, a six-year federal worker now with the office of program analysis and evaluation in the Veterans Administration, said, "I think federal workers should be allowed to participate in political activities" provided that there are safeguards against coercion. Hunter said he thinks he would be more active in politics if the Hatch Act were loosened.

Indeed, Hatch Act revision supporters say the bill actually toughens penalties for misuse of official authority or information, prohibits contributions to or from superiors or subordinates, and prohibits all on-the-job political activities, a few of which -- such as wearing campaign buttons -- are now allowed.

House committee Republicans say one of the bill's most attractive features is that it clearly spells out what is permitted and what is not. The current law bans everything prohibited in 3,000 regulatory rulings issued before 1940. This has led to hair-splitting advisory opinions that find, for example, that a sign is one inch too large for a yard but acceptable for a car.

Bernard Rosen, former executive director of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, urges supporters of Hatch Act revisions to look at the experience of the government before the Hatch Act was passed, and at what has happened since in states and cities without it. "What was permitted came to be expected," he said.

"The objective of enlarging the rights of the civil service is commendable, but will it undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the civil service?" Rosen said. "Will such participation further increase the suspicion of incoming administrations about the responsiveness of the career civil service to new leadership? These questions need to be addressed."

A personnel director for a large department said: "Any incoming administration is always suspicious that anybody already there belongs to the prior administration or prior party. They keep looking for a hidden Republican or a hidden Democrat.

"Currently, they assume we are all Democrats, and that mentality prevails in some assignments. It would aggravate the daylights out of the problem to the extent that I was stupid enough to allow myself to become readily identifiable as a Republican or a Democrat," he said.

G. Jerry Shaw, counsel of the Senior Executive Association, which represents the most senior civil servants, said the association's position is one of "studied neutrality."

"I do not know of any inquiries or statements asking us to support this bill," he said.

When then-Rep. Joseph Fisher (D-Va.) reported almost a decade ago that his constituents opposed Hatch Act revisions, the bill's sponsor then and now, Rep. William L. Clay (D-Mo.), charged that Fisher was talking only to "supergraders" and not the rank and file.

In a survey of 23,000 residents of the same district conducted by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) in 1983, 66 percent said they favored retaining the Hatch Act restrictions. "My sense as I talk to my constituents is there is no outcry to change this," Wolf said.

Just how eager federal employes are today to shed the Hatch Act yoke still is not clear.

AFGE officials, who are lobbying hard for the legislation, said that changing the Hatch Act has been a top legislative priority at the union's national conventions for years.

Patrick Smith, director of legislation for the National Treasury Employees Union, the second largest federal union, said: "The majority of our members want this. The number one issue I hear is frustration over their pay. They don't see any way to affect this unless they can work in campaigns.

"Congress is the federal employes' board of directors. It determines their pay, benefits, working conditions, or whether they will have a job. Our members want to influence members of Congress to the greatest extent possible."