HOUSTON -- Economic summits were instituted 16 years ago so that the Big Seven industrialized nations could better understand each other's problems. The evidence is that they are overdoing it.

The action in hospitable Houston suggests that the leaders have fashioned a giant Cuisinart in which all problems are creamed into a mush that tastes only of nuance, compromise and collapse.

They help each other more than they help the world; their organization, here at least, seems to be a committee to reelect the people in charge.

The two leaders, and buddies, who dominated the gathering were politicians who have put their success at the polls above everything else. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Bush brought diametrically opposed stands to the conference table at Rice University, but there was not a ripple of bad feeling between them.

They understood each other perfectly. Even when Kohl told Bush at an overtime session on the Soviet Union, "You are wrong. We all agreed on aid to China. You should agree with us on helping Gorbachev," Bush didn't budge. And everyone understood.

Said a European Community diplomat, "It would be too difficult for him to ask for new taxes to help the Soviets, or to help finance German reunification."

Bush could see Kohl's point: The chancellor has to buy Soviet acquiescence to unification. He is willing to lay out enormous cash for the purpose. Bush wouldn't dream of objecting.

So the Seven are going to do what politicians always do when they want to put off a radioactive decision: They are ordering a commission -- in this case to study what is wrong with the Soviet financial structure, so called.

Instead of sending hard cash to Mikhail Gorbachev, the West will send briefcases in the hands of hard-eyed bureaucrats from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to poke around in the rubble of the Soviet economy.

"Gorbachev is drowning," said Italian television correspondent Lucio Manisco, "and we are sending people to measure the depth of the water."

Score one for Bush. But there are no victories or defeats at these rarified heights. Kohl won too, because nobody told him to stop doing what he must do to win reelection next Dec. 2.

Kohl took a dive on another issue here, the environment, but he doesn't seem to mind. He roared into town as a jolly green giant and a hero to the environmentalists here at a counter gathering called the "EnviroSummit," a coalition of 150 organizations trying to defend the Earth against Bush's chief of staff, John H. Sununu.

They infiltrated the briefings held for the 4,000 journalists here, and lethally distributed copies of the letter Kohl addressed to his peers, calling on them to follow Germany's lead in cleaning up the planet. He announced a 15-year plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent.

By the second day of the conference, the jolly green giant had been cut down to size. It was not for want of encouragement from European colleagues: Britain's Margaret Thatcher made a lapidary statement at the opening session about the abundance and certainty of scientific evidence collected at the behest of a previous summit -- "compelling," she called it.

"I know there are differing views on the causes and consequences of global warming. But we set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with several hundred of the world's best scientists, and common prudence suggests that we should be guided by their report."

But it was not to be. Everyone understood why Bush hung back. Cleanup costs money. It can cost votes, too. Detroit hates talk of emission reductions, standards and quotas. So do oil, gas and coal lobbies.

The Seven decided on an escape into the rain forests of Brazil.

A project to protect them would offend no known constituency except possibly the government of Brazil, which apparently was not consulted.

Kohl was roundly denounced by the environmentalists in Houston, but he can tell the German Greens back home that he tried. And Bush, "the environmental president," can once again profess to have saved the country from the "no-growth" zealots and to preserve what he calls "balance," which always turns out to be what Sununu wants.

Kohl could have argued that money spent on environmental cleanup is a capital investment with an enormous payback in the form of greater efficiency and productivity. The Germans are putting $258 billion into cleaning up East Germany in the next 15 years on the conviction that what is good for the environment is good for business. He could have mentioned this to shortsighted George Bush.

But summits are no place for substance.