The minds and hearts of American business are yet to be won by the antagonists in the debate over President Reagan's plan to create a new cabinet-level trade department.
"I've never seen us lobbied so hard on any international issue," said Michael A. Samuels, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president for international affairs.
The division in the business community appears greatest among its Washington representatives--who see it as a turf battle between the Department of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative--and becomes less pronounced as corporate executives in the home office get involved, said one source who closely follows trade reorganization.
"The higher you get in a company, the better the reorganization looks," the source said. It seems to have greatest support at the chief-executive-officer level, where the merging of the trade functions of Commerce and USTR into one Department of International Trade and Industry is seen as better, cleaner management.
The Chamber of Commerce has yet to take an official stand on the question, though a special panel of its policy committee recommended Tuesday that the giant business organization oppose trade reorganization. But the full policy committee has yet to make its recommendation to the chamber's board of directors, which has the final say on the organization's policy positions.
The National Association of Manufacturers and the American Business Conference have already taken positions in favor of the president's proposal, while the Business Roundtable has not yet taken a stand.
Supporters among businessmen believe the new department will end the division between USTR, charged with making trade policy, and the Commerce Department, which carries it out--making for greater cohesiveness and ending the current practice of "agency shopping" by foreign governments and domestic industries searching for the most sympathetic hearing.
It is seen, moreover, to play the symbolic function of giving trade greater visibility at a time when it occupies an increasing role in the U.S. economy than ever before. "We need to put trade on the minds of American business people and the American public," said John M. Albertine of the American Business Conference, a trade-oriented group largely of high-growth, high-tech companies.
The strongest opposition comes from former USTR officials, who feel that highly regarded group of trade specialists will be swallowed up within Commerce. There are also fears that Congress will put a protectionist stamp on the new department and that trade will suffer in not having the trade policymaker attached to the White House as is now the case.