Legislators jump to identify themselves with issue of US competitiveness in trade

Competitiveness is fast becoming the central theme in the debate over America's trade problems. But with an agenda yet to be written, a growing number of policymakers are scrambling to identify themselves with the issue. ``Competitiveness is one of those wonderful things that can be all things to all people,'' says one Washington trade specialist.

Key Republicans and Democrats in Congress are developing initiatives on competitiveness. The Reagan administration is considering highlighting the subject, including making it one of the major points in the President's State of the Union address next month. And behind the scenes, no fewer than 10 Washington-based groups or agencies are developing competitiveness programs, including the recently formed Council on Competitiveness, a group of business executives, academics, and labor leaders.

This flurry of activity reflects the growing concern over the massive United States trade deficit, which is likely to top $170 billion this year.

``The US is one of the most formidable competitors in the world,'' says Pat Choate, a policy analyst at TRW Inc., and author of a new book on American competitiveness.

``What we've got are some choke points that are keeping us from achieving our full potential,'' he says.

The most realistic way to deal with these problems, says Mr. Choate, is to identify and focus on those areas that have attainable solutions. This is what is now happening in Washington, he says.

In September, an eight-member Democratic task force, headed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, proposed a legislative program emphasizing expanded technology research and new educational initiatives. ``The action most urgently needed is for the US to acknowledge the competitiveness challenge and to make competitiveness the national priority,'' said a report issued by the task force.

Competitiveness was also the focus of the recent meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderate Democrats seeking to pull the party back toward the center. Rep. Jim Wright (D) of Texas, the new Speaker of the House, was reported to have told his colleagues at that meeting that competitiveness could become the ``dominant economic issue'' for the rest of this century.

At the least, the Democrats see the issue as a tool for seizing the initiative in economic policymaking over the next two years.

The competitiveness issue is also attracting bipartisan support. Democrats and Republicans recently formed a Congressional Caucus on Competitiveness, which aims to pull together 100 members of Congress from both parties to back legislation in this field.

The Reagan administration - eager to get an extension of congressional authority for global trade talks - is pondering whether to support trade legislation in the upcoming session of Congress.

Analysts say the administration may be willing to compromise on some issues, such as aiding workers who lose their jobs as a result of foreign competition. But the administration is concerned that a trade bill might ``get out of hand,'' becoming a vehicle for simmering protectionist sentiments within Congress.

When the competitiveness issue first emerged several years ago, it attracted a burst of enthusiastic support. Some observers estimate that at least 15 major reports, including a two-volume opus prepared by a presidential commission, were rushed into the hands of policymakers only to gather dust on bottom shelves.

At the time, the White House objected to the notion that the US economy needed fundamental reform. The economy was then gathering steam after a long recession, and the economic indicators pointed upward.

What's different now, say sources, is the greater willingness by the Reagan administration to talk about the issue in the context of trade legislation.

Areas that seem especially ripe for compromise, says Choate, include making it easier for workers to shift from one job to another without losing pension benefits and tax reforms that encourage businesses to focus on longterm planning.

Regardless of the outcome, experts say the new focus on competitiveness is significant in that it marks a willingness to examine internal causes for US trade problems. In the past, the trade debate tended to dwell on external factors, such as import barriers.

``Many of our problems can be dealt with by changing private sector practices,'' says Alan Magazine, president of the privately funded Council on Competitiveness. The council, formed by many of the same individuals who served on President Reagan's commission on industrial competitiveness, plan to consider such factors as manufacturing processes and other areas where industry itself can improve competitiveness.

``We're not saying government doesn't have a role in creating the environment for competitiveness; it's just a matter of emphasis,'' says Mr. Magazine.

The question of emphasis is crucial. It will determine whether competitiveness gains the broad-based support needed to bring quick action in the next session of Congress or disappears once again.

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