THE Reagan administration and Congress need to put together a well-defined policy regarding United States overseas trade. The reason is all too clear: Low-cost imports continue to swamp US exports, closing some US manufacturing plants and throwing thousands of Americans out of work.
The trade deficit this year could well reach $130 billion, compared with the record deficit of $69 billion for 1983. Some analysts believe trade deficits will continue in the range of $10 billion to $14 billion for many months - at least until such time as the value of the dollar significantly weakens. The strong dollar makes US goods expensive vis-a-vis goods from other nations.
What needs to be kept in clear perspective is that the long-range economic challenge regarding US foreign trade is not just a matter of consumer trade-offs - namely, whether or not to buy relatively inexpensive overseas-made products or higher-priced US goods. At issue is the longer-range challenge of protecting America's key export markets abroad. Many of those markets are being lost to companies abroad.
The trade issue has come to the forefront in recent days because of reports that Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige intends once again to push for a merger of the Commerce Department and the Office of the United States Special Trade Representative. The reason for the merger? To coordinate US foreign trade better. The Trade Representative office - headed up by William Brock - now negotiates trade agreements with other nations. The agreements, insofar as US companies are involved, are then administered by the Commerce Department.
Legislation to create an overall Commerce and Trade Department has come before Congress periodically, only to bog down despite generally favorable discussion. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware is expected to reintroduce a measure to set up a comprehensive agency.
There is merit in such a plan. At present, US agencies related to overseas trade are found in a number of diverse federal agencies. By contrast, most European nations, and certainly Japan, tend to put them in one coordinated administrative agency.
But just shifting agencies around on an organizational chart will not solve US trade woes until Washington resolves the deeper question of what type of policy is needed in the first place. That is why it is so important for the administration, and Congress, to work out some goals for US trade - shaping a sense of direction about America's rightful place in world commerce.