Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) said yesterday he will introduce legislation next week that would sharply limit automobile imports through 1990 to protect domestic car makers.
The legislation is aimed largely at Japan, which supplies the vast majority of foreign cars sold in the United States, and will be introduced in anticipation of a Reagan administration refusal to press Tokyo to continue restraints on its auto sales in the United States.
The administration is scheduled to begin Cabinet-level consideration today on whether to ask Japan to continue the so-called voluntary restraints past March 31 for a fifth year. Senior trade officials said it is unlikely the Cabinet will come up with any recommendation for the president, although automobile and trade circles have been rife with rumors about possible quick White House action.
While few administration officials favor continuing the restraints, there is a concern among some of them that the auto industry's fast recovery would be stalled by a flood of imports if they are lifted.
There is a likelihood, moreover, that any decision will be delayed to intensify pressure on Japan to open its markets to other American products, especially telecommunications equipment, sophisticated electronics, wood and pulp products, drugs and high-technology medical equipment. Trade meetings are currently under way in Tokyo.
"If we can't get the administration to cooperate with us on voluntary restraints, then somebody's got to do something," said Dingell, who in the last two sessions of Congress was a leading proponent of domestic content legislation that would limit imports of foreign cars, although he failed to win passage in both houses of those bills. "Without reasonable import limitations, the current recovery of the domestic auto industry and its suppliers will be seriously jeopardized."
He said three of the major American auto makers -- Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and American Motors Corp. -- as well as the United Automobile Workers "will be very supportive of the bill."
His bill, called the "Made in America Act," would restrict automobile imports to 15 percent of the number of domestically made cars sold in the country. This would amount to 1.23 million cars this year based on anticipated sales of 8.2 million U.S.-built autos.
That number is less than the 1.85 million Japanese cars currently allowed in this country under the restraint agreement, but Dingell said it allows Japan greater penetration of the American market than before its sales began to balloon during the 1979 oil crisis. Other countries import about 550,000 cars into the United States, according to Commerce Department figures.
Although Dingell is an influential congressman and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, it is unclear whether he will be able to push the bill through the House and Senate. The domestic content legislation he championed in the past two sessions, supported by organized labor, was attacked by the administration as highly protectionist.