Backing a better trade bill

A compromise over vital trade legislation now being worked out between the United States Senate and the Reagan administration is a step in the right direction. By enacting the compromise -- which is in many respects a recapping of existing US trade laws -- lawmakers would be able to tell their constituents that they had voted for a ''tough'' new trade bill. Yet, the compromise would avoid the protectionism found in current trade measures in both the Senate and House.

The compromise would also be a clear signal that, while the US is loath to invoke protectionist measures against Japan -- which enjoys a substantial trade surplus with the US -- Japan must quickly follow through with promised efforts to open its market to more American goods and services.

The legislation in question involves the wording of a so-called ''reciprocity bill'' designed to free up more overseas markets to US trade in general. But Japan remains the underlying focus. In its present form the bill, which has substantial support in Congress, would impose sharp restrictions on overseas nations failing to end discriminatory trade practices. However, under a bargain now being worked out between the White House and key senators, the measure would require only that US goods and services be given ''fair and equitable'' market opportunities in other nations, instead of ''substantially equivalent market access,'' as called for in the Senate bill. The compromise would also bar any sweeping new penalties, continuing instead existing penalties under the Trade Reform Act of 1974. Thus, while such wording would become the substance of a reciprocity bill, the actual legislation would be moderate in tone and basically a reaffirmation of existing law.

Such a compromise is both temperate and realistic. US-Japanese trade is hardly a record of balance and reciprocity. To cite a few examples, Japanese products make up roughly 23 percent of the US car market; 50 percent of the US radio and recording equipment market; 25 percent of the television set market. But no US product line holds a similar position in Japan, or even a 10 percent share of market. The compromise trade measure would serve as a reminder that such a one-sided arrangement must be ended, something the Japanese government concedes.

This should not, however, absolve US industry of responsibility for its own poor showing in some export markets. American firms are not always vigorous competitors abroad, as are the Japanese, and they have to correct their own managerial and other deficiencies.

What has to be avoided at all costs is a return to the days of strong protectionism that acted as a brake on trade. In this connection one cannot but be dismayed by the type of nationalistic clamor now starting to appear in some regions and industries of the United States. This extends even to ethnically offensive corporate advertisements. Anti-Japanese ads with racist overtones have begun to appear -- a phenomenon which should be quickly discouraged.

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