The US itself gets in the way of business, say exporters

It isn't just increasing international competition, the rising value of the dollar, and those much-discussed foreign import restrictions that make it tough for US exports to find buyers these days.

American businesses are telling Congress and the Reagan administration that inconsistent US export controls are also in the way.

''The business community is waiting for the green light, a message that export growth is worthwhile,'' says Joel Honigberg, president of the International Business Council of MidAmerica and director of the Marshall International Trading Company in Chicago.

As the government works to deregulate a variety of industries from airlines to trucks, it is being urged not to overlook curbs slapped on exports over the years. These range from antitrust restrictions to unilateral trade sanctions. Trade is risky enough, exporters argue, without such added strictures.

Although the plea from the business community is not a new one, there are growing signs that it is at last making some headway in Washington. The point has taken on such importance for exporters that it cropped up in virtually every speech given last week at the annual Chicago World Trade Conference.

''Our government has still not developed a consistent policy commitment that advocates export expansion,'' insists Mr. Honigberg.

Ted Rowland, a vice-president of the American Association of Exporters and Importers, agrees: ''We need to export more and in a more committed way. We don't need to go back . . . to trade wars.''

US exports have grown steadily over the last five years and now account for some 4.8 million American jobs, according to the US Census Bureau. But exports in this country have not matched imports in dollar volume since 1975. US Trade Representative William Brock III notes that the US share of world exports has declined from 15 to 12 percent over the last decade. He has observed that the US has imposed barriers to any increase in exports where other countries have launched incentive and export promotion programs. And the US Commerce Department estimates that 40 percent of the 50,000 firms capable of exporting do not do so.

The most encouraging sign that the exporters' plea is being heard is the proposed Export Trading Company Act, which passed the Senate a year ago without a dissenting vote but has yet to pass the House. The bill, which has the support of the Reagan administration, would encourage the formation of one-stop trading companies, offering help in everything from financing to marketing problems, by relaxing antitrust and banking laws. Banks have been barred from investing in such trading companies because of the potential risk to depositor money.

Supporters say the bill would raise the general level of awareness of export potential and also increase access to capital, encouraging many smaller new firms to get involved for the first time. ''It will help change our traditionally -'insular' attitude about overseas business,'' says Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania, who is one of the key Capitol Hill sponsors of the current spate of trade reciprocity bills.

In another move which would strike down export controls, the Senate has amended the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The change, which must still pass the House, would permit companies to make payments that are legal and customary in a foreign country. Such payments might help speed cargo unloading, for instance, or insure issuance of import licenses.

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