MANDATORY TROUBLE

OF THE MANY BUZZWORDS connected with trade legislation these days, one in particular carries ominous undertones - reciprocity.

The so-called Gephardt provision in the House omnibus bill, H.R. 3, is especially troublesome. Fashioned by Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., the amendment calls for mandatory reciprocity against those countries running ''excessive" trade surpluses with the United States. The International Trade Commission would decide which countries have excessive surpluses and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative would then determine whether these surpluses are the result of unfair trading practices.The countries singled out would then have to reduce their surpluses or face blanket quotas.These quotas would narrow U.S. bilateral deficits with these countries by 10 percent a year. Specifically, the countries mentioned in the legislation are Japan, Taiwan and West Germany.

To be sure, reciprocity can be a useful wedge to pry open markets. But when it becomes mandatory it opens a Pandora's box of protectionism. Negotiations give way to an escalating series of trade-limiting measures that wind up creating more problems than they solve. Such a measure would, for example, have a devastating effect on the newly launched Uruguay trade round.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski is aware of this. In the trade bill he introduced this week, the reciprocity amendment has been moderated to allow USTR six months to negotiate an agreement, with a three-month extension if necessary.

Some of Rep. Gephardt's staffers have said they don't expect to see the provision enacted. It's designed, they say, more to attract attention to the problem. But such things have a propensity to snowball and with so many congressmen already proposing "tough" trade legislation, why add fuel to protectionist fires?

Besides threatening to unravel the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks there is another danger to provisions like the Gephardt amendment. Such legislation is introduced with the presupposition that no fire will be returned from our trade partners - an assumption that is sadly mistaken.

In his remarks to the New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week, U.S. Trade Ambassador Clayton Yeutter sent a message to Capitol Hill.

"There is no doubt in my mind that our trade partners will retaliate against the United States if we legislate protectionist laws," he said. ''They will retaliate and they should retaliate."

In fact, if such a provision were in place, the United States right now would be engaged in a trade war with the European Community over the loss of U.S. grain sales to Europe following the accession of Spain and Portugal into the EC.

When it became clear no agreement on the scrap could be reached by a Jan. 1 deadline, both parties agreed to a 30-day extension of the talks. Under mandatory reciprocity there would have been no extension and U.S. farmers would have lost sales of 2.3 billion metric tons of corn and sorghum to the community. U.S. chemical, aluminum, bourbon and a host of other producers would not have gained the reduced tariffs and quotas the EC has agreed to. And EC cheese, wine and liquor producers would have faced U.S. tariffs of some 200 percent. In Mr. Yeutter's words "we'd have had a trade war."

The destructive impact of such a trade war seems reason enough to remove mandatory reciprocity from any trade bill emerging from Capitol Hill.

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