A POTENTIALLY USEFUL project is gaining in the House to sharpen the American attack on the world population problem.Under a proposal carefully framed by Rep. James Scheuer (D-N.Y.) to mute domestic opposition, and co-sponsored by 200-plus House members, a select committee would be set up to study for two years 1) the "major adverse effects" of international population growth, 2) "approaches" to cope with it "with emphasis on those measures designed to reduce the frequency of conception rather than the termination of pregnancy," and 3) "means to encourage" countries to adopt "proven" fertility-reduction methods. Only tangentially, it seems, would be committee enter domestic waters.

The steam behind this proposal seems to arise less from a dissatisfaction with U.S. govorment population programs than from the deepening frustration many Americans feel as they watch population growth chew into the resource base and development efforts of the world's neediest countries. American-supported family-planning programs are now funded at the rate of $143 million. This is due to rise to $177 million next year. To the extent that general development rather than any specific family planning program reduces fertility rates, to be sure, the American contribution to population control is much greater. But the problem remains huge.

Much more than money is involved.Research on cheap, reliable and safe contraception methods, for instance, is considered inadequate. The integration of family-planning programs into overall development planning needs to be furthered. Techniques for mobilizing social pressures against large families - techniques short or coercion - must be refined. The way the U.S. government is organized to conduct population activities, and to bring its influence effectively to bear on foreign governments, is scarely beyond improvement. The Helms amendment, barring use of aid funds for foreign abortion programs, severly limits American relevance to foreign needs. It must also be asked if the United States would not have a higher claim to advise other countries on their official population policies if it had one itself.

The complexity of these questions is no reason why a select House committee should no help other concerned Americans, in an out of government, to cope with them. Rapid or "excessive" population growth is as urgent as any issue on the U.S. international agenda.