Gathered around a White House table at a series of meetings in mid-December, selected business executives sought to convince President Reagan's top advisers that trade should receive greater emphasis in the administration's economic policy.
The White House aides bought that idea, and Reagan called a month later in his State of the Union message for "a new priority for trade" and a strengthened government organization to deal with trade issues.
Translating those vague aims into specifics, however, has ignited a classic Washington turf battle involving the government agencies that now have a piece of the trade pie, the private sector constituencies involved in trade, and Capitol Hill.
The elevation of these battles to the White House level underscores the new importance of the subject, with 80 percent of all new manufacturing jobs dependent on overseas sales and one of every three farm acres producing crops for export.
Further, the deep recession of the past 18 months has awakened "Buy America" and protectionist sentiments in Congress as the United States' trade posture has grown worse. The nation posted a record $44 billion merchandise trade deficit in 1982, and that deficit may go as high as $80 billion this year.
White House efforts to stem both the flow of red ink in the trade figures and the growing protectionism in Congress are coming to a head, with Reagan scheduled to make a major speech on trade policy in San Francisco Friday.
But as of this weekend, key elements of the speech were reportedly still up in the air--including the possible announcement of a public commission to plot trade strategy--as a result of the turf battles within the administration and in Congress.
According to sources in and out of the administration, most key players in the issue, including presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, favor reorganization of the federal bureaucracy with jurisdiction over trade. Having decided that, however, the administration found itself holding a can of worms, and is stymied on how to proceed.
Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan signaled the administration's confusion in an appearance Thursday at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum when he commented that the government's system for handling trade policy is not very good but a reorganization effort could be more upsetting than leaving matters as they are.
The high-level trade commission, reportedly set to be headed by former General Electric Co. chairman Reginald H. Jones, was seen as a way of creating enough support for a reorganization plan to bypass jurisdictional fights.
The major battles revolve around whether the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative--which is part of the White House apparatus--or the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration should control national trade affairs.
Farm interests, furthermore, oppose removing their export affairs from the Agriculture Department, which traditionally protects agricultural interests in Washington.
Some of these differences bubbled to the surface last week in a speech by a key Republican, Chairman William Roth of the Senate Government Operations Committee, who attacked the Commerce Department's ability to handle difficult trade policies and challenged the administration to support his bill setting up a cabinet-level "lean and mean" Department of Trade to take over functions now scattered throughout the government.
Roth insisted that the U.S. trade deficit will continue to grow unless there is a major overhaul of the government trade organizations. Such continued deficit growth would mean "thousands upon thousands of lost job opportunities" and the possibility that the United States' "fledgling" economic recovery "might prove to be short and anemic," he added.
Roth called Commerce "a grab bag of unrelated functions" and said that giving it a greater role in trade policy "would be like relegating trade to a bureaucratic graveyard.
"In fact," he asserted, "the only ones who would gain from consolidating trade in the Commerce Department are the Japanese and Europeans."
He set himself on a collision course with the White House by scheduling hearings on his bill for Tuesday and calling Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige and U.S. Trade Representative William E. Brock as the first witnesses. At the White House's request, however, Roth postponed the hearings until after the president's speech.
But Roth's is not the only trade reorganization bill in the congressional hopper. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) has taken the opposite tack, introducing legislation that would transform the Commerce Department into the Department of Trade and Commerce and give it sole jurisdiction over trade issues.
Under Moynihan's proposal, the revamped department's secretary would be the administration's leading trade spokesman. The functions of the U.S. Trade Representative, who now handles key negotiations on trade matters, would be wrapped into the new department.
It remains unclear which way the administration will go, and Hill staffers who specialize in trade matters believe there is little support for either the Roth or Moynihan proposal in Congress. "Except for Roth and Moynihan," said one, "no one gives a damn."
Business interests are following the same line, waiting to see the administration's position.
But while Baldrige and Brock--two leaders in forming trade policy--work well together, some of their aides have their elbows out. Commerce officials, for instance, rushed to issue a press release on an agreement with Japan on high technology before Brock, in Tokyo, actually signed it.
The fear, then, is that the Washington preoccupation with the turf battle will dilute the substantive administration initiatives on trade that are still being worked out.