Don't open the door to US bribers

Those concerned about ethics in corporate practice will wince at the Reagna administration's plan to weaken the landmark 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The measure was enacted because of revelations in the early 1970s of widespread bribery abroad by US corporations. Over 400 firms had made questionable payments involving more than $300 million.

Arguing that the 1977 act is inhibiting US trade, the administration is seeking a number of changes that would have effect of cutting back the federal government's enforcement power to curb overseas bribery by Americans. Congress should resist taking such a retrograde step.

That is not to say that the antibribery legislation should not be modified ot strengthen and improve those sections that are widely considered to be unclear or unworkable. Nor should lawmakers fail to simplify reporting and bookkeeping procedures under the act.Legislation to that end has been introduced.

But the administration would go far beyond reform of the legislation -- in part by seeking virtually to scuttle an accounting provision requiring publicly owned firms to keep detailed financial records of all transactions. In fact, if this particular provision is eliminated, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would lose its enforcement role under the act altogether. Enforcement would instead be solely under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department.

During the past several years the US has made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to conclude an international agreement outlawing bribery. Graft is still a frequent way of facilitating business in many nations. That is especially true in some developing nations where payoffs are part of the accepted cultural pattern. But it is important to note that, even though many American businessmen claim that they have lost important contracts because that the legislation, US exports abroad actually grew sharply in the two years after the measure was enacted.

It would be regrettable if the US now lowered its standards. In the long run , it is the quality of the product involved as well as the integrity and reliability of the firm that makes a sale irresistible. The US ought to be bending its efforts toward seeking an international antibribery measure as well as bilateral agreements. It should be encouraging other nations to raise civil service salaries so that bribes are not tempting. American businessmen should cultivate friendships with foreign businessmen and trade officials.

The US antibribery law represents American idealism at its best. It must not be overturned or so gutted by amendment as to be re ndered meaningless.

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