Robert F. Dee, chairman of Smithkline Beckman Corp., the Philadelphia-based pharmaceutical company, was named chairman last week of one of the country's most powerful associations, the National Association of Manufacturers.

Dee, speaking at a NAM board meeting in Hot Springs, Va., earlier this month, called the budget and trade deficits the "country's two biggest problems" and said it was time for the group to mount a "counterattack."

At the meeting, Dee said there were only two possible solutions to the country's budget deficit: cutting government spending or increasing taxes. "I am convinced that we can't grow our way out of it," Dee said.

On the trade deficit, Dee cautioned that the administration's efforts to increase U.S. exports by lowering foreign exchange rates and spurring economic growth in Europe and Japan could fail if America's trading partners don't drop import restrictions they have erected to protect their own industries.

Dee added that he would like to see the administration and Congress focus on changing the unfair trade practices of those countries and be ready to "compete aggressively to meet the demands of unremmitting global competition."

Dee began his career with Smithkline in 1948, working in sales, pharmaceutical research and personnel for 19 years before becoming a vice president. He became president in 1972 and chairman in 1976; he was also chief executive officer from 1972 to 1982.

The NAM represents 13,500 U.S. companies that manufacture 80 percent of the nation's industrial goods and employ nearly 85 percent of its industrial work force.

Dining out on nachos and tacos has become almost as popular as munching pizza or egg rolls, according to the recently formed Mexican Restaurant Association.

"Mexican is without a doubt the fastest-growing ethnic food in the United States," said a spokesman for the group, ranking it third behind Italian and Chinese foods in popularity.

But it wasn't word of mouth that made Mexican restaurants hot in the United States, according to the group. In 1981, the Mexican government established the Food and Beverage Board to promote its cuisine to U.S. palates and increase Mexican food imports to the United States. But economic problems forced Mexico to turn the board over to the United States the same year. The board then evolved into a trade group whose members included producers and importers from both countries. Since then, the Mexican food industry has grown tremendously here, with more than 23,000 chain and independent restaurants operating across the United States.

"Prior to 1981, Mexican food was a Western experience; today it is sweeping the country," said Thomas C. Brenker, the MRA's executive director. This growth was what prompted the first trade group to form MRA as an independent off-shoot organization geared specifically toward the needs of restaurant owners and suppliers.

In its first five months, MRA already has attracted 1,500 members, Brenker said. Among other things, the group sponsors trade shows, collects statistics, and helps members make their menus more authentically south-of-the-border. TRADE

The National Telephone Cooperative Association, representing 450 small locally owned telephone companies, has announced two staff appointments. Janet L. Hirshberg, formerly public affairs manager, has taken over as director of membership services, with responsibility for meeting and program planning, publications and membership affairs. And J. Christopher Lehner Jr., who has worked as an editor on NTCA's weekly and quarterly publications for the past two years, has taken over as publications manager.

The Better Business Bureau has published a booklet to help people choose a long-distance phone company. It does not rate specific telephone companies but it does provide a checklist of questions for consumers to ask when doing so. "Tips on Long-Distance Telephone Services" can be obtained free of charge by calling (202) 393-8000. PROFESSIONAL

Anne Greenglass, the former meeting director for the National Association of Wheat Growers, has joined the American Society for Training and Development as director of conference services. Greenglass will plan ASTD's May conference in St. Louis. Last year the ASTD conference attracted more than 4,500 attendees.