We have a trade crisis in this country.

Certainly an overvalued dollar, bloated by huge federal deficits, helped bring on the crisis. But there are other causes, too, and it makes no sense to put off dealing with them until the deficit is eliminated.

We will have a federal deficit "as far as the eye can see," according to outgoing budget director David Stockman. In the meantime, we are seeing the heart cut out of this country's industrial capacity and transplanted overseas, piece by piece. Once gone, it will be next to impossible to get back.

The magnitude of this manufacturing transfer has not yet been grasped by opinion makers in the press and the administration, though factory workers are keenly aware of it and growing numbers of them are starting to worry that they may be next.

Corporations don't announce with any great public flourish a move overseas, but many corporate boards are meeting right now and making capital commitments to do just that. Many have already made the move.

We reached our all-time high for manufacturing employment in June 1979, with more than 21 million industrial workers. Last May we had 1.7 million fewer factory jobs, even after 30 months of economic recovery. In June we lost 45,000 more manufacturing jobs.

Because of the trade deficit, the United States became a debtor nation in May for the first time since 1914. On our present course, the debt will amount to $1 trillion by 1990. That would, in effect, give every American family of four a new $15,000 mortgage to service, with nothing to show for it.

It is time we exercised some self-interest.

Our attitude toward trade -- since the days immediately following World War II, when we dominated the world economy -- has been one of passive acceptance. In recent years we have seen an aggressive "new mercantilism" emerge in the world trading system: government-directed trade practices in which the object is to boost exports and inhibit imports, at all costs. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, established shortly after World War II to provide a set of rules promoting free and open trade, has been no barrier to this unhealthy trend. For one thing, GATT's provisions, which applied to 20 percent of world trade in 1950, effectively apply to only 5 percent, according to the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness this year.

We have sat passively, hoping to lead the world back to free trade by our example. Unfortunately, the world is taking advantage of us and following the example set by Japan. Governments have erected barriers to our imports -- particularly manufactured goods -- while flooding our country with their exports, targeting one industry after another.

According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, less than 20 percent of Japan's imports were manufactured goods in the years 1979-84. That situation, over that period of time, doesn't happen by accident. It can only be the result of a conscious, deliberate policy.

Even though Japan is the trade model for non- OPEC developing nations, it buys only 8 percent of these countries' exports. The United States, on the other hand, imports 58 percent of their goods. Many of these countries are still receiving U.S. aid, in the form of trade preferences that give them easier access to our market, even though they have large trade surpluses with us.

We must stop sitting back passively, convinced of the rightness of our cause and satisfied that its rightness alone will sooner or later return the world to the path of free trade.

Reps. Dan Rostenkowski, Richard Gephardt and I recently introduced trade legislation that singles out those countries that have used unfair barriers to imports to help amass excessive trade surpluses. The legislation would affect four countries: Japan, Brazil, Taiwan and Korea.

Our objective is to open up those foreign markets, to bring down their government-imposed barriers to U.S. products. If these countries didn't begin gradually to reduce their large surpluses, they would have to pay a 25 percent duty on all their exports to the United States.

We included their world surpluses as well as their surplus with the United States since we have no wish to see our trade deficit shrink at the expense of some third country.

We feel our approach is reasonable, realistic, workable and -- above all -- necessary.

It has come in for heavy criticism from the administration and from some in the press, as well.

That the administration would say anything is, I suppose, progress of sorts. It had no response at all to several suggestions earlier this year for establishing a trade policy. It has ignored the recommendations of the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, the Senate Democratic Working Group on Trade Policy and the Advisory Committee on Trade Negotiations. It declined even to testify at Senate Finance Committee trade hearings this spring.

Now that the administration has finally decided to comment publicly on a trade initiative (even though it criticized our effort before it had a chance to read the bill), perhaps we can get it and other critics to take the next step and offer an alternative.