Around the table in the Waldorf's Vanderbilt Suite, down the hall from the Hoover Suite, were what used to be called American captains of industry. They still are, but they no longer command such powerful legions. Their empires have fallen on difficult days.

These were the leaders of Big Steel, gathered for the 90th annual meeting of their trade association, the American Iron and Steel Institute.

A year ago they met in dramatically different circumstances. All their indicators were up. Now they are down.

They were speaking, naturally, about the state of their business and about the nature of their problems, both of which mirror the nation: about foreign competition, the need for protection, high interest rates and declining profits, the president and Congress (and little to cheer on either account), the uncertain future.

But the real message coming out of their casual conversation, if this reporter heard them right, had to do with something else. It was a contempt for Washington and all its works, and an anger at the inability of the political/governmental system to function in the national interest.

Recent events in Washington can only serve to reinforce their feelings. Given the shabby political spectacle in Washington we have just witnessed during the budget battle charades, they would be right in further venting their emotions about the capital and in worrying more about the conditions of their companies.

After the mid-year recession of 1980, the steel companies began a robust recovery in 1981. Their mills were pouring substantially more raw steel. Orders for shipments increased. Production rose. Sales and rates of return were up. Total assets grew. Long-term debt was reduced. Mills across the country were utilizing 84.5 percent of their production capacity as compared with 77.8 percent in the same period a year earlier.

Since election day of 1980 the industry embarked on a major modernization and expansion effort. Already $7 billion has been allocated for new projects. Steel industry analysts say "never in history has the domestic industry undertaken so much in so short a time."

Heightening the sense of optimism was the promise of a new era of prosperity led by the most pro-business president in half a century, Ronald Reagan.

Since then it has been one long steep slide downward. The last six months of 1981 produced some of the worst set of economic statistics for the steel industry since the depths of the Depression. It has gotten even worse in the first five months of this year.

Ask one of the steel executives seated around the table when business conditions were as bad, and he quickly replies, "1933." The industry doesn't try to sugarcoat the gloom with semantics about the nature of the current "recession."

The association's annual report, distributed here to company executives, comes right out and uses the terrible word "depression."

"The current depression in steel production and sales will inevitably result in a slowdown in the rate of modernization," it reports.

Decline in vitally needed modernization isn't the only price Big Steel has paid in the last year. Every level of the industry has been seriously affected.

Demand for steel has withered as the economy has gone into a tailspin. High interest rates and the slump have affected drastically two of steel's biggest customers, the automobile and construction industries. As steel sales plummeted, the industry's problems were compounded by what its annual report calls "a startling surge in imports of carbon and speciality steels." By the end of the year, foreign steel imports had captured 23.7 percent of the U.S. market, a figure that skyrocketed from the 13.9 percent recorded just a few months before.

Tens of thousands of steel workers were laid off. By the middle of this month, more than 125,000 mill employes either were unemployed or on a sharply curtailed work week.

Today, some 30 percent of the steel industry work force is unemployed.

Even those stark figures don't adequately express the severity of the situation.

Just a year ago steel employment was rising well above the numbers of 1980. Last May it hit a high of just over 300,000 people employed on hourly wages.

By December the number had dropped 258,000 people. That was lower than any previous single month since the industry began collecting monthly steel employment data in June, 1933.

Despite the rise in employment during the first half of 1981, the final average number of hourly workers engaged in the production and marketing of steel fell to its lowest point in 50 years.

Not since the very depths of the Great Depression in 1931 has the number working been so dismal.

The story since has brought no relief. The number of steel workers continues to drop. An additional 16,000 steelworkers were without jobs by the end of February.

A similar plunge marks the utilization of the steel mills' productive capacity. Again, the reversal in fortunes has been dramatic: from 85 percent use last spring to below 60 percent at year's end. And the latest figures, for the period April 1 through May 8, are notably worse.

Only slightly more than half of the American steel industry's plant capacities is now being used.

Not surprisingly, a number of major steel companies are reporting substantial operating losses.

To put the final edge on the steel situation, here's how the annual report describes the present picture:

"By the end of the quarter, one sizable integrated steelmaker was operating under the Bankruptcy Act, another was in the process of closing down its primary steel operations, and the future of several other large plants was in doubt."

More than one person referred to the isolation and unreality of the capital as compared with the country around it.

Do those people have any idea of what it's really like outside? Do they know what's happening? one of them asked.

All they have to do is come and talk to some of their workers and they'll find out quickly enough, another said.

These weren't Jarring Jack Jackson types, the old rugged individualists, or dinosaurs of the past, the kind who automatically would echo approvingly the arrogant "what's-good-for-General-Motors-is-good-for-the-country" sort of big business rhetoric. They were thoughtful and concerned. They know, as their people put it, that even in the worst of times, the United States remains the largest steel market in the world.

But they also know they and the country are in trouble and they look to the nation's political leadership for the fashioning of responsible policies and actions. They aren't getting them. If anything, as we've seen in the days leading up to the Memorial Day congressional recess, the Washington system appears in danger of breaking down. Not only industrialists, but citizens at large would be justified in giving a resounding old-fashioned Bronx cheer for the present performance of our national representatives.

Right on, Big Steel. A plague on all your houses, Washington.