IN ITS EARLY days, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission performed a specially useful function. In addition to going around the country with a staff of investigators, holding large public hearings and serving as a forum for the discussion of the country's enormous civil rights problems, the commission issued annual reports outlining specific difficulties and suggesting legislative remedies. These recommendations were the foundation of bills that eventually became the great civil rights laws of the '60s.

There is no single national problem that commands such an effort inside the government these days. And while different groups of policymakers sometimes study a specific question -- social security funding, for example, or military reform -- and recommend changes, few of these groups have the staff and resources that were available to the commission. One such coalition of lawmakers -- the Wednesday Group composed of moderate Republicans in the House -- has recently sponsored a series of studies, the first of which has just been published. The purpose of the studies is to make recommendations in four areas: social policy, the economy, foreign affairs and energy and the environment. The 18 congressman who signed the first document hope that, like the old Civil Rights Commission reports, it will stimulate discussion and inspire legislation.

Where should these Republican be heading in the 1980s? In the area of social policy, these congressmen focus on reforms in welfare, civil rights, family and child care programs, educational opportunities, employment flexibility and health. The changes they suggest are not sweeping, involve no ambitious new programs or multi-billion-dollar appropriations. Rather, they propose amendments to a dozen federal programs with an emphasis on supporting and refining social programs so that they foster self-sufficiency rather than long-term dependency. They want the federal government to offer more flexibility to those struggling to pay off student loans, more assistance to low-income working mothers trying to leave welfare, more support for home and community-based long- term health care so that families can provide an alternative to expensive, institutional care.

This first of the Wednesday Group reports resembles a mini-platform outlining the coalition's plans for social programs. Most of the proposals are not new; not one would be revolutionary in impact. But as a document indicating goals and suggesting some modest, specific ways to attain them, the report deserves attention.