Despite noise over trade, Congress unlikely to enact tough curbs

Members of Congress angered by Japan's trade policies are once again stamping their feet, waving their hands, and rattling the sword of protectionism. But it's unlikely that Congress will actually draw its blade and enact tough trade legislation. The ''domestic content'' bill passed by the House last week is decidedly unpopular in the Senate. Other major trade bills face a similar uncertain future.

For the moment, however, the noise level is high. Domestic content is easily the most controversial proposed trade law to receive serious attention in many years.

The bill requires that most cars sold in the United States be built with high percentages of US labor and parts. If passed, the bill would force behemoth Japanese automakers such as Toyota to build more plants here, or lose access to the US market.

Supporters of domestic content say it's needed to protect the US auto industry from the Japanese onslaught. Opponents say it's a nasty bit of protectionism that will raise the cost of cars and hurt US workers with export-oriented jobs.

A toothless domestic-content bill passed the House last year. This year the bill had the added support of 19 freshmen representatives, who received strong United Auto Workers (UAW) backing in their 1982 campaigns. A full-strength version passed 219 to 199 - though Japan announced last week that it would extend its voluntary auto-export quotas.

At this point, however, domestic content may be more symbol than substance. Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D) of New York and other supporters say they won't even try to get the bill through the Senate until next year, when an upcoming election might compel wavering senators to vote for the measure.

Many House members might not even have voted for the bill if they thought there was a chance it could become law. Rep. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana, who tried to weaken the bill on the House floor, said many colleagues privately told him he was right - then voted for passage, to please the UAW.

And Congress, in general, has so far this session shown little inclination to do more than bluster about trade.

For instance, remember last year's buzz word, ''reciprocity''? Originally, backers of reciprocity legislation wanted to give the president new authority to strike back, trade barrier for trade barrier, against foreign countries found to be indulging in unfair export practices.

Such a bill is still under consideration - but it's been much weakened. This fall, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a reciprocity bill that would simply provide some new protection for US services exports, and require a variety of annual reports on US international economic competitiveness.

Another export-oriented initiative that's facing an uncertain future is the campaign to transform the Commerce Department into a new, sleek Department of Trade and Industry.

A Senate panel on Oct. 4 approved a Department of Trade bill. But the administration - originally a strong supporter of the move - is not pleased with the way things are progressing. As now proposed, the agency, would be larger than the White House had envisaged and would contain an ''industrial policy'' council administration officials don't like.

Without President Reagan's support, say Senate aides, there's little chance the Commerce Department will ever be reshaped.

''Our enthusiasm for a trade department remains undiminished,'' says Ed Dale, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget. ''But we're hoping to get this bill fixed up when it reaches the Senate floor.''

One measure with relatively bright prospects is the Trade Remedy Reform Act of 1984, now being drawn up in the House. This bill would refurbish and modernize laws that allow US firms to apply for protection from unfair imports.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.