UNWANTED CHRISTMAS TREE

THERE'S A CHRISTMAS TREE the Reagan administration isn't asking for, doesn't want and would refuse if it were offered. It's one, however, that may land on its doorstep, like it or not.

It's the congressional trade bill it fears could emerge after senators and representatives get done loading it with protectionist trinkets and baubles. Indeed, for two years the administration studiously avoided putting forth a bill of its own precisely because of such fears.Now, it has changed its mind - or the November election has changed it for it. The shift of the Senate from Republican to Democratic control has made it virtually certain that, no matter what the administration thinks, a trade bill will emerge from the new Congress. In fact, the Democratic leadership has made known that it will be the No. 1 item on the agenda.

There's no certainty as yet what the administration bill will contain. Senior White House people will be spending the next several weeks collecting ideas, trying them out on interested parties and trying to fashion them into a cohesive whole. They are hopeful that the president will see fit to give their thoughts considerable attention in his State of the Union message a month from now.

Some of ideas making the rounds include:

* Expanded trade adjustment assistance for workers who have lost their jobs because of import competition.

* Revamped government aid for research and development.

* Changes in antitrust law making it easier for U.S. concerns to get together when threatened with foreign competition.

* New legislation increasing the ability of the United States to pressure its trading partners to tighten enforcement of patents, trademarks and copyrights.

* Streamlining procedures for domestic manufacturers to get relief when confronted with import surges or with unfair trade practices.

* New legislation giving the administration authority to participate in a new round of talks beginning in January within the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The need for an administration trade bill to counter the possibility of a highly protectionist measure coming out of Congress arises

from two miscalculations. One is the failure of dollar devaluation to produce a reduction in the trade deficit as soon or as rapidly as the administration had hoped. The other is the inability or unwillingness of U.S. trade partners, notably Japan, to open their markets to U.S. exports.

The administration belatedly has recognized that it must do something to overcome the perception, right or wrong, that it lacks a trade policy.

Unfortunately, whatever the administration brings forth may be too little, too late. The planners, thus, must move boldly. One doesn't have to agree with detractors that administration actions so far have been too timid and too few to acknowledge that what's called for is a whole new dimension in trade policy.

It is not excessive to say that the trade problem must be given center stage. It will command it anyway whether the administration wants that or not.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe