In one of his very first acts as the new Secretary of Commerce, Norman Mineta has vowed to establish 'a mechanism to deter a future import crisis' in steel. The government, he said, 'cannot stand by while American workers bear the brunt of market-distorting practices and closed foreign markets.'

He laid out a six-point program, promising, among other things, faster industry relief from steel import surges and greater pressure on such countries as Japan, South Korea, Russia and Brazil to stop their steel trade-distorting practices.Comforting reassurances, it would seem, for American steelmakers. Indeed, the administration's 'steel action' program is a lot more thoughtful and much broader in concept than past government efforts to rescue U.S. steelmakers from 'unfair' import competition.

Over the last three decades, steel, more than any other U.S. industry, has wangled special import relief from a succession of administrations, starting with Nixon in 1969. Those measures induced foreign steel suppliers to limit their exports to the United States or to maintain prices above pre-set levels.

Massive legal filings by U.S. steelmakers alleging foreign dumping or subsidies or the threat thereof usually helped prod those administration actions.

Finally, starting in the early 1990's, the industry began to prosper without special government measures. By 1997, steelmakers were reaping record profits. Suddenly, however, imports came pouring in as Asian markets dried up. Steel prices soon crashed, profits turned to losses, more jobs were lost.

And so in 1998-99 U.S. producers filed a big new batch of dumping and other unfair practices complaints and the Clinton administration followed with its own 'steel action' program, promising closer monitoring of steel trade trends, faster investigation of dumping and subsidy complaints, and intensified consultations with other major steel producing countries toward reducing world steel overcapacity.

These commitments, first made a year ago, were fleshed out late last month by the Commerce Department as Mineta pledged to work to 'deter a future import crisis.'

But is the administration's action program just another palliative for the domestic steel industry?

The American Iron and Steel Institute praises the administration for identifying who and what are causing the world's steel trade problems, such as a largely closed Brazilian market, allegations of corporate collusion in Japan and excessive government intervention in South Korea. But it calls the administration's promises to address those problems 'modest' and 'less than what's needed.'

And glaringly absent from the administration program is any endorsement of legislation, long sought by U.S. steelmakers, to tighten U.S. antidumping and other trade law dealing with unfair trade practices.

The Steel Manufacturers Association believes it will take years for the administration's program to achieve 'concrete results,' even if carried out effectively by 'dedicated' officials. And, notes Thomas Danjczek, the association president, the plan's very existence is in question, given that a new administration takes office in January.

Probably the best hope for resolving U.S. and global steel trade problems lies in convincing other nations - not only Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Russia but also Ukraine, China and India - to foster more open, competitive markets. But recent conversations with Japan and Korea have yielded only mixed results and Japan is newly offended by U.S. criticism of its steel policies. Still, this autumn the administration expects to hold its first high-level Joint Steel Dialogue with Russia.

Happily, the recent steel 'crisis' seems to have passed, domestic steel shipments rebounding this year to near-record levels, capacity utilization recently exceeding 90 percent, and at least some strong price recovery was seen. Such major producers as U.S. Steel and Bethlehem are back in the black, while Nucor and Steel Dynamics have reported record profits.

But new market turmoil may be setting in. Imports are rising again, reaching near-record heights, though some of this involves record purchases of semi-finished products by U.S. mills themselves. While finished steel deliveries from Japan and South Korea are down, ostensibly because of U.S. dumping penalties, shipments from other suppliers, especially China, Taiwan, India, Ukraine and Turkey, are up sharply. It's a 'tremendously fungible' world market, says Danjczek. Foreign producers not subject to U.S. import curbs take the sales of those who are. Example: Ukraine's expanded shipments of hot-rolled sheet as Russia's declined.

And the impact of a new import surge is likely to be magnified, if, as expected, the U.S. economy slows in the months ahead. Some steel prices, hot-rolled sheet in particular, are already reported softening.

Come this fall, markets could roil further, if the U.S. International Trade Commission effectively lifts anti-dumping and countervailing duties on imports of cut-to-length plate, cold-rolled and corrosion-resistant flat products. The duties were imposed in 1993 on imports from more than a dozen countries.

Steelmakers, through their friends in Congress, are reportedly mounting pressure on the ITC to vote to retain those duties. The House Appropriations Committee has hinted to the ITC that it might face a budget cut if it keeps analyzing 'theoretical constructs' rather than focusing on 'market realities.'

At the least, ITC findings lifting the penalty duties would heighten chances in Congress for industry-supported legislation toughening U.S. trade law. But that's for next year. The ITC won't make its ruling until after the November elections. Meantime, there is more than enough evidence to watch for signs of a new steel 'crisis.'