There's room for reasonable people to disagree over how much of a threat inflation poses to the American economy right now. In fact, plenty of economists are doing just that.

But there can be no denying that it's much easier to keep the lid on than to try to regain control over inflation after it has broken out again.Nor can any other institution claim to have done nearly as good a job of curbing inflation as the Federal Reserve Board has done in recent years.

Consequently, there's no justification for trying to make the FRB a scapegoat simply because it is trying to contain inflation by hiking interest rates.

The FRB could use some defenders just now, judging from the annual report that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan presented to Congress this week. Though the central bank already has taken a series of steps to tighten credit, as Greenspan noted, interest rates may have to be pushed still higher if inflationary pressures are to be contained.

That news won't set well with Congress, since higher interest rates are particularly unpopular with politicians during an election year. But the way to respond is not to get tough with the messenger, Greenspan and the FRB, but to get tough with inflation itself. One way to do that is with tighter credit, which leads to higher interest rates.

This should come as no surprise. It's no secret that the drought is creating food shortages, and shortages bring on higher prices. Likewise, now that the jobless rate has fallen to its lowest rate in 14 years, tighter labor markets inevitably exert pressure to increase wages and prices. When that happens, the cost of borrowing naturally rises, too.

By tightening credit, the FRB runs the risk of going too far and bringing on a recession. But it's the FRB's steady hand on the tiller that has largely helped the economy chalk up 67 consecutive months of growth, a peacetime record.

Besides, if Congress doesn't like what the Fed is doing currently, the lawmakers can do something more constructive about it that just treating the FRB as a whipping boy. Mainly, Congress can get much more vigorous about curbing federal spending and balancing the budget. The sooner the deficit is reduced, the sooner Washington will curb this major source of pressure in the direction of high interest rates and high prices.