An administration task force named by President Carter to propose ways of helping the sluming U.S. auto industry has completed its work without resolving the highly charged issue of Japanese automobile import competition, government officials said yesterday.
The task force, headed by Ransportation Secretary Neil Goldschmidt, reportedly will suggest several options for restraining sales of Japanese -built cars in the United States, leaving it to the president to choose among them.
The tougher course would be a request by Carter to the International Trade Commission, asking it to speed up its investigation of Japanese automotive imports, in response to an appeal by the United Auto Workers last month for protection to save the jobs of its members, government officials said.
Normally, the ITC's inquiry would not be concluded until December, and the president would take another month or two to review its recommendations. If the ITCconcludes that the U.S. industry has been seriously hurt by imports, the president could impose a range of sanctions, from numerical quotas to higher tariffs on Japanese built vehicles.
It was widely assumed when the UAW suit was filed that the president's decision would not come until well after the November presidential election. The option of an accelerated decision reportedly proposed by the task force could inject the administration's policy toward the auto industry more deeply into the fall political campaign.
But the task force also suggests that the president could wait, continuing to monitor the import situation, while waiting for the ITC to complete its fact-finding on the impact of Japanese automotive imports.
The two courses reflect an unresolved debate among top adminstration officials over the response to the wave of Japanese auto imports, which have captured nearly 30 percent of the U.S. market. Some White House, Commerce Department and trade officials have argued that Japan should not be singled out, contending that it was primarily poor planning by U.S. companies that left them so vulneralbe to the smaller, higher-mileage Japanese cars.
Other officials, reportedly headed by Goldschmidt, argue that the sudden change in consumers' demands for fuel-efficient cars -- multiplied by the gasoline shortages last year and soaring fuel prices -- was an extreme reaction that the companies could not have anticipated. The U.S. producers need a breathing spell of a year or two while they retool their plants to produce smaller cars, this fraction says.
Although the division on import policy continues, the two sides have drawn closer, administration officials said.
Last March, the administration rejected appeals for improt restriction on Japanese autos, but since then the deepening slump by the American auto firms has strengthened the argument that the companies are facing an unprecedented challenge that requires a strong government response.
The President is expected to disclose his decisions on the auto industry program later this month and appoint a government-industry-union committee to continue the work on this issue.