The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have each passed laws establishing a civilian "national service" corps for young people. The idea is not new. Their purpose - a worthy one - is to try to make the concept of service central to the life and work of more Americans - and to accomplish social works that the nation might not otherwise afford.

In part, the bills are reactions to President Bush's "thousand points of light" speech to the GOP National Convention in 1988. Bush later refined it into a modest $25 million plan to set up a community service clearinghouse - publicizing successful projects and encouraging new ones.Critics of that plan concluded that it would do little to actually support an organized effort harnessing the energy and time of young people to do constructive community work. So they started their own more comprehensive plan, resulting in the legislation just passed.

Although the ideas are worthy, the result is confused. The originators of the bills say that they bear little resemblance to what they had in mind.

The House bill has a price tag of $193 million and is called the National Service Act. It provides grants to states and local school systems to encourage volunteer activity by young people and establishes youth conservation and service corps to do environmental and social projects.

The Senate passed a $125 million bill that, although less costly, is more ambitious. It will include a $35 million program to link national youth service with financial incentives. The panel that wrote the House bill is very much opposed to linking service to student financial assistance.

Yet several lawmakers favor a more energetic approach. Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Charles Robb, D-Va., proposed a plan that amounted to a "civilian GI bill" in which student financial aid would be contingent on a full-time stint in the military or in low-wage community service. Their bill would have phased out current forms of student aid in five years.

The upshot is that in spite of worthy motivation on all sides, there is too much confusion.

In a time of crushing budget deficits, lawmakers should hesitate to institute an expensive program that is not well-designed.

Instead of trying to iron out the differences between the two versions in conference committee, Congress could render some national service of its own by restudying the whole issue.