The new buzzword among Capitol Hill Democrats this spring is "industrial policy."
No one is yet sure what it means or how it fits into the 1984 political campaign, but congressmen and presidential candidates are seizing on it as a new strategy to produce structural reforms to the American economy and a Democratic alternative to Reaganomics.
Two House subcommittees held hearings yesterday; bills are being drafted; a labor coalition is setting up a seminar for next month, and a broad-based, bipartisan group is readying a report on industrial policy for release late this year or early in 1984--just in time for the political campaign.
"It's exciting, important, a real alternative for the schizophrenic, non-economic policy of the president. It could be the basis of a Democratic alternative. That's what my hope is," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who heads a special task force of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee that expects to issue a blueprint for industrial policy by the fall.
"It's jobs, growth and hope," continued Kennedy, who pulled out of the Democratic presidential sweepstakes earlier this year.
Democratic hopefuls still in the running seem to agree. Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.) is circulating an industrial policy position paper, while former vice president Walter F. Mondale and Sen. Alan Cranston (Calif.) use it as a cornerstone of their economic policy.
Along with everyone else embracing the goal of industrial policy, they are consulting the new economic gurus of the field--especially Robert B. Reich of Harvard and Lester Thurow of MIT, whose new books have become the sacred texts of industrial policy, widely read on Capitol Hill.
Missing from the ferment, however, are such traditional sources of intellectual underpinning for Democratic economic policies as Joseph Pechman of the Brookings Institution, Charles Schultze of Brookings and the University of Maryland, and Francis Bator of Harvard, who remain dubious whether industrial policy is more than a slogan.
Members of Congress now appear to have become aware of some of the problems attached to the fuzziness of the industrial policy label. Many of them, for instance, tagged themselves "Atari Democrats" for their espousal of high-tech industries as the future of America. But they were forced to swallow a bitter pill when Atari, a giant consumer electronic company, abruptly shifted much of its labor-intensive video game assembly operations overseas where wage rates are lower.
"I want to strip the buzzword quality from it and focus the debate," said Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), whose House Banking Committee's economic stabilization subcommittee yesterday began a summer-long series of hearings on industrial policy.
Offering a definition for industrial policy, Rep. Stanley N. Lundine (D-N.Y.), a subcommittee member who has been actively studying industrial policy, said it should bring business, labor, government and the public together "to help determine the facts concerning our industrial situation and to see how industrial revitalization can be aided in areas of capital investment, trade and regulation, research and development, as well as human resource development."
But an industrial policy would not pick winners and losers among American industries as some have suggested. Nor would it determine product lines and production methods or set policies that industries must follow, Lundine said.
LaFalce said the hearings will center on seeking ways to overcome America's loss of international competitiveness, including "establishing a coherent industrial strategy to help declining industries adjust to new conditions and to encourage emerging industries to grow."
LaFalce, whose subcommittee holds jurisdiction over most of the industrial policy bills his House colleagues are examining, said, "I want to be Mr. Industrial Policy in the House."
He has a lot of competition for that title, though, with Reps. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Lundine (D-N.Y.) and Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) drafting a bill that would set up in the executive branch an economic planning council that could be the starting point for a national industrial policy.
With prime jurisdiction locked in the LaFalce subcommittee, however, other congressmen are casting around for a vehicle to capture a piece of the industrial policy action. For instance, Wirth joined his Budget Committee task force on education and employment with Rep. Doug Walgren's (D-Pa.) Science and Technology Committee research and technology subcommittee to hold hearings Tuesday and yesterday on a subissue of industrial planning--employment and technology--as part of an effort to build a record on the subject.
Chairman Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) of the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee has asked the International Trade Commission to investigate the impact of the industrial policies of other nations and to see whether American businesses need some form of protection from them. The quasi-judicial ITC begins its hearings Wednesday.
The biggest problem with the industrial policy idea, though, is determining just what it means. "When people say industrial policy, they mean different things," observed Ted Van Dyke, a long time Democratic campaign aide who is president of the two-year-old Center for National Policy.
The center, considered a Democratic think tank, has gathered a commission on industrial policy headed by Irving Shapiro, the retired board chairman of DuPont, Lane Kirkland, president of AFL-CIO, and investment banker Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres & Co. Rohatyn, best known for engineering the fiscal rescue of New York City, has been pushing the idea of a new Reconstruction Finance Corp. for American industry.
LaFalce said the federal government already influences the American economy in a myriad of "incoherent, uncoordinated and unfocused ways" that form a national industrial policy. His aim, and those of others following the new line, is to get these varied efforts to pull together in a single policy for American industry--much as the government has done for American agriculture.