The "Trade and International Economic Policy Reform Act," the trade bill passed in May by the House of Representatives, has been getting some overly harsh reviews in the trade and general press as well as by the Reagan administration.
One could only conclude from the heated criticisms that the bill is hopelessly protectionist.It isn't necessarily so! A close look at H.R. 4800 reveals that while there are some defects in the bill, they are outweighed by many positive and necessary provisions - provisions that have received little public attention, but that, in fact, have been sought for years by the most ardent supporters of a constructive U.S. trade policy. Further, the bill's defects could be overcome in the development of a Senate bill and in Senate-House conference negotiations in this session of Congress.
Timing is crucial. Among other things, portions of the bill are necessary to strengthen the United States' hand as it prepares for the next round of negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Preliminaries for those negotiations are now in process. Trade ministers are meeting this week in Punta del Este, Uruguay, to set the stage for launching a new round in 1987.
Specifically, with respect to the GATT, the bill would reauthorize "fast track" legislative approval for multilateral trade agreements. Under the fast track system, Congress agrees to vote simply up or down on a bill to implement the trade agreements, thereby avoiding amendments that would risk unraveling the careful balances that are worked out during negotiations. In the past such authority has been a virtual precondition for launching as well as concluding major GATT rounds. With current fast track authority set to expire at the end of 1987, U.S. trade negotiators need to have future assurance of this authority in their back pockets before they go into GATT negotiations.
Given the latest trade figures, the prospects for a workable trade bill based on the current bill are far brighter than they are likely to be in 1987 or 1988. Those who oppose the current legislative package may lose the upcoming trade round on the questionable assumption that protectionist pressures in the United States will materially abate in the next two years.
The new round of GATT negotiations, which have required years of preparation, and which will continue for several years, present the United States with a major opportunity for strengthening the international trading system as well as opening up world markets to U.S. goods and services.
Criticism of the trade bill has focused on provisions that would, under certain arbitrary circumstances, require rather than allow the president to take action against countries that discriminate against U.S. imports. These provisions, however, also specify a range of circumstances under which the president can forgo such action. Among them, the president may determine that such a response is not in the national economic interest of the United States. This allows for considerable presidential discretion and reduces the automatic nature of these provisions. Still more flexibility can emerge on any final bill sent to the White House.
The bill also breaks new legislative ground in recognizing the importance of dealing with developing country debt problems in a trade context. It recognizes that the debt burdens of the developing countries have both a dampening effect on U.S. exports to those countries and a destabilizing impact on the international economy. Under provisions of the bill, the World Bank would be asked to investigate a variety of means for increasing and accelerating economic assistance to indebted developing countries that are willing to take remedial measures to strengthen their economies.
The bill additionally calls for greater interagency cooperation in the areas of trade policy, monetary policy and exchange rates. While it is not possible to mandate executive branch cooperation, any steps that can reduce ''institutional tunnel vision" and improve the vital linkages between monetary, trade and exchange rate policy cannot help but have a beneficial impact on the U.S. and world economies.
H.R. 4800 has been getting a bum rap. This is comprehensive legislation. It recognizes trade issues as manifestations of complex, deep-rooted global problems, requiring comprehensive solutions.