Mickey Kantor has been running the Commerce Department barely a month, yet already he is sowing protectionist mischief. Recently Mr. Kantor and his aides have been meddling with the department's anti-dumping policies in ways that shamelessly protect U.S. firms and punish foreigners. U.S. anti-dumping laws are unfair enough to begin with; Mr. Kantor has no business making them any worse.
Consider the case of Cray Research, the supercomputer company. Cray has regained its edge in manufacturing these ultra-high-speed machines and is now, for all practical purposes, the only U.S. supplier. After years of trying, Cray also is selling supercomputers to the Japanese government, successfully arguing that no national market should be reserved for its own manufacturers.Tell that to the Commerce Department, which is trying to ensure that no one sells supercomputers in the United States except Cray.
The federal National Science Foundation was preparing to award a supercomputer contract to Japan's NEC Corp. when the head of Commerce's dumping department fired a warning shot across its bow. Acting Assistant Secretary Paul Joffe, responding to a request from the NSF, told the foundation that he had determined NEC's supercomputer was being offered for sale at a price well below the cost of production - and, therefore, could be subject later to anti-dumping penalties.
Dumping, in theory, occurs when a foreign company exports goods at unfairly low prices to drive U.S. competitors out of business. Although there is little evidence this actually occurs, Congress nevertheless has established rules and procedures that give foreign firms a reasonable chance to defend themselves.
None of this, apparently, mattered to Mr. Joffe. Without benefit of a dumping complaint from Cray, a formal investigation, or a chance for NEC to present its side, Mr. Joffe decided the Japanese company was selling its computer at an unfairly low price. He also alleged that NEC's sale would ''threaten the U.S. supercomputer industry with material injury,'' a ruling that can only be made by a separate agency, the International Trade Commission.
The intent here is clear: The department has gone to bat for Cray, ensuring that the National Science Foundation - and the taxpayers who support it - will pay more for their computer than they otherwise would have.
When the United States agreed to international dumping rules in the World Trade Organization, it insisted that governments issue decisions that are ''unbiased and objective.'' The Commerce Department has violated both of those standards in this case. And what is Mr. Kantor doing about this? Why, he is taking credit for it.
Indeed, Mr. Kantor lately has been casting a wide net, questioning the independence of the International Trade Commission, which shares with Commerce enforcement of anti-dumping laws. In Senate testimony, Mr. Kantor said, ''I have found it quite curious that we have turned over . . . these vital policy decisions in enforcing our trade laws to a so-called independent agency whose deliberations and decisions may not reflect the social needs and build jobs and build incomes here in this country.''
In other words, Mr. Kantor is criticizing the commission because it can't be easily manipulated by the administration, as happened with the Cray case. Yet, Congress created the bipartisan ITC precisely to avoid this type of meddling.
Mr. Kantor's predecessor, the late Ron Brown, had political instincts sharp enough to steer clear of special interests in the dumping bureaucracy. Mr. Kantor, it would seem, lacks those instincts.