NO MEMBER of the Congress that straggled out of here on Dec. 22 has been more talked of since than Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

He is ordinarily considered an ornament to his party, but at the moment he's getting a poor press from his colleagues, who feel badly let down. He did two things in those awful dying days that have lowered his stock considerably. They have a certain symmetry, but that doesn't help.

On the one hand, he played a leading role in getting $8 million for the contras included in the omnibus appropriations bill. In the House-Senate conference, he either deferred to hard-line Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) or expressed the disputed view that the contras are hard up.

In another last-minute move, Inouye pushed through a bill for $8 million to subsidize a school for North African Jews in Paris.

It is a common thing for members to press for projects -- postoffices, bridges, dams and buildings that are more expensive and sometimes as unjustified as the Paris school -- and to prevail because their colleagues are tired or know the day will come when they want a vote for something equally exotic.

What baffled his colleagues was Inouye's insistence on a venture that could not possibly have affected his constituents. Had it been a matter of sugar or tourism, his fellow senators would have expected it. But the fate of North African Jews attempting to "preserve their cultural identity" in France is hardly a matter that agitates many Hawaiians.

The reasons given for acquiescence by other members of the conference committee merely reinforce the image of Congress as a group of back-scratchers who throw taxpayers' money around with no regard.

"Just what we needed," groaned one member after reading the comments of Rep. William Lehmann (D-Fla.), who said, "It doesn't make any sense except that Dan Inouye wanted it badly."

"It was a lousy $8 million," said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), raising more hackles among wage-earners.

It seems that Inouye was simply doing a favor for a friend. One of his campaign contributors, New York real-estate developer Zev Wolfson, sits on the board of Ozar Hatorah, the organization that was formed to help Sephardic Jews from North Africa. How it benefits any U.S. citizen to see that the Jewish children get a proper schooling from kindergarten through the 12th grade is something that Inouye may find himself explaining.

The episode is not expected to assist him greatly in his challenge for the post of Senate Democratic leader. Inouye is running against Sen. George Mitchell of Maine and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana.

Other members help their friends, too. Other Democrats have supported contra aid. But Democrats chose Inouye for the most conspicuous political plum at their disposal this year, the Senate chairmanship of the Iran-contra committee, with hundreds of hours of television exposure and endless opportunities for making speeches and a good impression. He was supposed to act as the conscience of his party, passing stern judgment on the ethics and morals of an administration caught selling arms to Iran and slipping funds to the contras.

In several of the more memorable passages of the long hearings, Inouye made grave and impassioned pleas for understanding of his position against contra aid. To Rob Owen, Oliver North's young courier, he explained that a man could be a patriot and serve his country well and still be opposed to sending money to keep a war going in Nicaragua.

Inouye is a disabled veteran of World War II.

At a late-night conference on the contras, Inouye was confronted by Rep. David Bonior (D- Mich.), head of the House Democratic Task Force, which led the House into voting zero aid. Bonior suggested that from Inouye's service on the Iran-contra panel, no one should know better than he how the administration deceives Congress when seeking more money. From the hearings record, Bonior cited to the chairman the story of invented crises that more often than not had stampeded the members into continuing the funds.

Bonior argued that the real numbers showed that the contras had supplies to last at least six months. Inouye rejoined that they desperately "needed air drops."

Said Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.) sardonically, "Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman were down there in the jungle with only two bullets left and we had to help."

Inouye said he had to represent the Senate, which had voted 56-38 against a patched-up Demcratic compromise amendment that would have allowed the five Central American presidents to make a judgment about the aid.

Rep. Edward J. Feighan (D-Ohio) called the resurrection of contra aid "one of the great humiliations to the Democratic Party in this session of Congress."

Inouye's part in it will not be forgotten.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.