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Charles Hagel, deputy director of the Houston economic summit, and Wayne Braun, table designer for PDR Corp., sit at a 40-foot oval table designed for the summit. It will be used by President Bush and seven other heads of state, foreign ministers and finance ministers.Given the opportunity, even presidents and prime ministers sometimes cut economics. They'd rather spend their time talking about international politics, strategy and military matters, says an economist who has watched them do it at economic summit meetings.

So W. Allen Wallis, a former undersecretary of state for economic affairs, says the seven leaders at the economic summit in Houston next month will stick to designated subjects at the formal meetings and switch to their own agendas in more relaxed, private settings.

After all, they're the bosses - four prime ministers, two presidents and one chancellor. No professorial economists are going to make them deal with a steady diet of the dismal science.

Most of them aren't really very interested in economics anyhow, Wallis said.

At Houston, July 9 to 11, they'll probably spend their private sessions discussing, and trying to translate, the Soviet Communist Party conference that convenes 10 days before they do, in sessions that could be crucial to the future of Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his programs.

They'll also be talking about progress toward reunification in Germany, and about the risk of deunification in Canada, where the French-Canadians of Quebec are threatening secession.

The Houston conference will be the 16th economic summit meeting, and like those that went before, it is not likely to produce drama or major decisions. Judging on past performances, chances are it will be dull, especially when sticking to business.

Summit staff veterans agree that the annual meetings are useful, for the contacts, conversation and agenda-setting. But they seldom decide anything, and the final communiques usually are worded to paper over the most nettlesome issues.

At a briefing at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a panel of economists who have been involved in prior summits looked toward the one just ahead.

They agreed that trade barriers, especially on agricultural products, need discussion at the summit, and that the altered state of East-West relations also should be a prime summit topic.

By the time they get to Houston, the Western heads of state may be showing traces of summit fatigue - they meet a week earlier at London for a NATO summit.

The quest for a new international trade agreement by the end of the year is a priority for the Bush administration. As the summit host, President Bush is first among equals in influence at such sessions, and his agenda would customarily be followed.

But Robert J. Morris, another former summit planner, said French President Francois Mitterrand may have a different idea.

Morris, now senior vice president of the U.S. Council for International Business, said the French leader "takes almost glee in spiking the summits that are hosted by American presidents."

This time, he said, Mitterrand wants the summit to consider Western aid to the Soviet Union, a notion the administration considers premature at best.

The Houston meetings aren't likely to change minds on that, or produce deals on much else.