FOREIGN flags increasingly fly over America. Since 1981, foreign ownership of United States assets has tripled to more than $1.5 trillion (including one-sixth of our national debt), constituting the most dramatic phenomenon in our economy. Yet we do not know where foreign capital is coming from, in what industries it is concentrated, or whether it threatens our economic independence or national security.
To finance record budget deficits, buy foreign products, and sustain a high national life style, America has been selling of its productive capacity - selling the family jewels to pay for an eight-year night on the town.
Some 16 federal agencies collect foreign investment data - fragmented, incomplete, inaccurate data. The most detailed, secret by law even from Congress, is collected by the Commerce Department, which confesses to a $223 billion ``statistical discrepancy'' that some experts believe is six times larger.
Our laws invite foreign investors to conceal ownership through dummy corporations and other sleights of hand.
The Agriculture Department, for instance, lists 270,000 acres of Texas farmland registered to Netherland Antilles owners - one acre for every man, woman, and child there, none of whom own any. Are the true foreign owners legitimate businesses, smugglers laundering drug money, or agents of a hostile nation?
This ignorance gap could have grave consequences. In the 1970s, the Central Intelligence Agency only accidentally stumbled on a Soviet effort to gain access to sophisticated US technology by secretly purchasing California banks with loans to Silicon Valley companies.
Every other country tracks foreign investment better than the US: most also require preclearance and impose restrictions.
My Foreign Ownership Disclosure Act, twice passed by the US House, would provide our first systematic registry of major foreign investment. Intense lobbying by foreign interests and the Reagan administration kept the measure from being enacted, but support, reflected by a 250-170 margin in the last vote, has steadily increased.
America would continue to have the world's most open investment policy, requiring no preclearance and imposing no restrictions. My legislation asks only that major foreign investors sign in as they walk through our open door. Most would report only who they are, where they live, interest held, and the US assets' value - information fitting on a postcard. The largest investments would require less information than now required of every publicly traded corporation.
Opponents say registration of foreign ownership here is discriminatory; every other country requires more. Do immigration laws discriminate by distinguishing between citizens and aliens?
Registration was endorsed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's 1984 ``Declaration and Decisions on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises,'' signed by the Reagan administration, major Western industrialized nations, and Japan.
Opponents argue that registration would inhibit foreign investment here. But legitimate capital flows to secure profitable investments, not secret ones. Why else would Americans invest a trillion dollars abroad under often adverse circumstances?
Registration would enable policymakers to evaluate the effects - good and bad - of foreign ownership of US farms, banks, factories, and companies.
The Energy Department estimates one-fourth of our domestic oil refining capacity is foreign owned. Saudi Arabia owns half of Texaco's refining and marketing operations. Kuwait owns the multibillion dollar Santa Fe Energy and a huge stake in British Petroleum - parent company of Standard Oil of Ohio, holder of the lion's share of Alaska's 5 billion barrel Prudhoe Bay reserve - a position so large that the British government ordered a reduction in Kuwait's 30 percent share.
How much more of our domestic energy industry is owned by OPEC nations, which have already orchestrated three US energy crises?
How much influence do political action committees and lobbyists of foreign-owned companies have on American politics?
How does foreign investment affect American jobs?
In the 1800s, foreign investment helped build this country. But we are no longer an emerging nation; we are the world's industrial leader. We risk squandering that leadership by ignoring the effects of foreign money on our prosperity, independence, and national security. A Debate REP. JOHN BRYANT (D) of Texas has been building support gradually for his foreign-investment disclosure bill since he first introduced it into Congress in 1985. It passed the House easily last year, but was not considered by the full Senate. It will come up again for a vote in the House soon, perhaps in mid-April. Observers say the vote will be close in the Senate. If it does pass, it probably faces a presidential veto.