Washington -- back to work

AMERICANS may well welcome President Reagan's enthusiasm to be back on the job and ``rarin' to go,'' as he puts it, after a three-week vacation out in California. Mr. Reagan is certainly not alone in finding himself back on the job. Millions of Americans are returning from their summer hiatuses -- many of them also eager to make a meaningful contribution to their businesses and occupations.

The giant American economy, it is increasingly clear, could use a good measure of back-to-work zeal at this juncture. The recovery continues, long after the difficult 1981-82 downturn. At the same time, the sluggish pace of this recovery warrants careful attention -- as well as some tough decisions in Washington.

In that regard, the overriding priority remains essentially what it has been all this year; namely, getting meaningful control of the federal budget process -- to reduce deficits and bring down interest rates. The still relatively high US interest rates, as measured in world economic terms, in large part explain the reason for the high value of the dollar of the past year; the strong dollar has worked against US exports abroad and contributed to a decline in the US manufacturing base, as well as a conti nuing erosion of factory jobs.

Getting better control of the linkage between the budget, the deficit, interest rates, and jobs remains the central economic agenda in Washington. Thus, it was somewhat disappointing that President Reagan chose to concentrate on tax reform, as he did in his Independence, Mo., speech over the weekend. That is not to deny a need to simplify the tax code. But making tax reform the priority economic agenda for the final months of 1985 -- as Mr. Reagan seems to be doing -- appears unwise given the larger ec onomic considerations now facing the United States.

Tax reform is not a marginal economic concern. But -- in light of pressing trade and employment issues -- it is a secondary issue.

The administration itself cannot fail to note the stupor now settling on the economy, as underscored by data in the economic index for July, released last week. Granted, the economy grew in July, but barely -- at a listless 0.4 percent advance. The index, which is used to anticipate the future direction of the economy, hardly suggests that the economy will grow at the 3 percent to 4 percent range administration officials have been forecasting. Most private economists now believe growth will be in the 2

percent to 3 percent range. That would be under the 3 percent level that is necessary just to hold the unemployment rate steady at current levels.

There is much about the current economic setting that continues to look good: Overall employment, despite declines at the factory level, has stayed high; the trade deficit has narrowed somewhat; the dollar is down from the beginning of the year; inflation remains low.

But it is the long-term challenge that must not be overlooked. Economic recoveries have a way of leveling off and -- unless they are rejuvenated -- veering toward such problems as rising joblessness, or worse.

The US economy is in need of rejuvenation. After all, the US economy continues to be the sparkplug for the world economy. At the minimum, Washington must begin action on a new and more comprehensive program to reduce the deficit; it must avoid protectionist measures that could impair world commerce; and it must begin to fashion programs -- such as creating a coordinated international trade agency -- that can protect existing US factory jobs while ensuring growth in the job market in general.

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