One after another, the assembled members of the Maryland congressional delegation, joined by Gov. Harry Hughes and other state and local officials, took turns lambasting the Reagan budget cuts.

As his colleagues made their statements in front of the television lights on Capitol Hill last month, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Prince George's County listened quietly. When he finally spoke, it was in a whisper but the message was clear: House Majority Leader James C. Wright wanted all House Democrats at a party caucus. The caucus was scheduled to begin, he said, in a few minutes.

There were protests, but Hoyer firmly persisted. Before long the congressmen were on their way, doing the leadership's bidding.

Wielding quiet authority while avoiding the limelight has earned the 45-year-old Hoyer a reputation in Congress as a consummate politician and insider just as it did when he was president of the Maryland Senate a decade ago.

Opting for the politics of the House rather than the politics of national issues, Hoyer has taken on low-profile, sometimes even thankless tasks for the leadership in his drive to become part of the inner circle.

That has meant running a volunteer group of congressional staffers for Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It has meant serving as a liaison to the Democratic National Committee for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus; and serving as a sort of leadership lieutenant, rounding up Maryland Democrats for Wright.

"You can always tell when someone's been in the leadership of the state legislature. They're oriented to the leadership," said Christopher J. Matthews, an aide to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. "Steny is ambitious. He doesn't want to be in the back of the room."

Hoyer does not apologize for being ambitious, or for trying to work his way into the leadership fold. "In order to get things done, in order to make a difference, it is necessary to be in the center of the decision-making," he explains. That is why about a year after he arrived in the House he successfully lobbied for seats on the House Appropriations and Steering and Policy committees, which dole out money and committee appointments.

Hoyer is not a back slapper, according to his colleagues, but a methodical legislator who is tenacious about things some consider tedious. He actually seems to enjoy repeating the same litany of arguments to dozens of congressmen, aides say in amazement, and he rarely relies on "Dear Colleague" letters.

"He usually talks to you on the floor, and on a one-to-one basis," said Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.). "It takes more time that way, but face to face contact is much more effective than hiding behind a phone."

In meetings, Hoyer seldom speaks first. "There are talkers and listeners here," said Panetta. "Steny is a listener. He tends to sit back and absorb what other people are saying . . . . Most members like to talk first."

"Steny understands the legislative process, when to push and when not to," said Coelho.

His decision to focus on insider politics has meant that Hoyer has had relatively little national exposure. As a result, Hoyer operates in the shadow of others such as his fellow Maryland Democrat, Rep. Michael D. Barnes of Montgomery County, who has become a leading party spokesman on Central American issues.

Barnes says there is no rivalry between the two. Hoyer puts it this way: "I don't think there is a rivalry between Mike and myself, in one sense. In another sense, of course there is."

The two have not tangled because they are after different things in the House, Hoyer says.

But both men are considered potential candidates for the Senate in 1986, so "in that context, there will be competition," said Hoyer. "But I think whatever portion of that exists, and it's bound to exist in any delegation, is minimal,"

Hoyer says that the Senate is "an option" but an unlikely one for the next few years.

He has, however, been spreading his wings beyond his district, and that has fueled some speculation about the Senate. In particular, he has been building political collateral in the Baltimore area, by serving as a sort of auxiliary congressman to the city.

"He's our eyes and ears on the Hill," said Pat Bernstein, spokeswoman for Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

Bernstein said that the mayor has relied heavily on Hoyer to carry the ball on issues ranging from the construction of a new Veterans Administration hospital and port dredging to urban redevelopment programs.

Last year during the VA hospital fight, Hoyer spoke several times with each Democratic member of a key appropriations subcommittee. His staff concentrated on congressional aides, organizing a staff trip to Baltimore for talks with Schaefer. Hoyer also called in veterans groups and some Maryland hospital officials, all for a hospital that would not even be in his district.

He currently appears solidly entrenched in Maryland's 5th congressional district, where he won reelection last fall with 72 percent of the vote. He was first elected in 1981 after Democrat Gladys N. Spellman became ill and the seat was declared vacant.

Prince George's has a heavy concentration of federal workers and a large black population, and Hoyer has spent considerable effort cultivating both constituencies. He has won the support of federal worker groups, but has had some problems with blacks since failing to support the Jesse Jackson platform at last summer's Democratic presidential convention.

Hoyer has been trying to mend his fences, according to blacks in the county, taking part in such things as the antiapartheid demonstrations at the South African embassy. But Bennie Thayer, the local businessman who headed Jackson's statewide effort and who some predict will eventually challenge Hoyer, said the scars will take many years to heal.

"We will be scrutinizing his actions more closely than in the past," said Thayer. "Where is he coming from? Are his actions political or coming from the heart?"

Hoyer said he is frustrated by problems with Jackson supporters, who he said singled him out "to some degree because I was a white from Prince George's County as opposed to [Rep.] Parren Mitchell" of Baltimore, a black congressman who Hoyer said voted the same way he did on most of the presidential platform issues.

Spellman's illness and the unexpected chance to run for a vacant congressional seat offered Hoyer an opportunity to revive a political career that seemed to have stalled after a bright beginning. Once the youngest president of the state Senate, he had designs on becoming the state's youngest governor. But his defeat in a 1978 lieutenant governor's primary race knocked him out of politics. He says that, for many months, he was depressed.

"You're 39, and you're out of office and people are saying: 'Well, there goes Steny Hoyer . . . " he says. Now he describes himself as more patient and less hungry, not constantly worrying about what his next step should be.

"That is not to say that I'm not striving, that I'm not competitive. I have that. I'll always have that. But I don't have that compulsion any more. I think I'm perceived as ambitious, as wanting to get ahead. But hopefully I'm doing it with a little more perspective than before . . . . In part, it's just a function of being older."