The storm over trade and protectionism that swept through Congress last fall has blown out to sea, but not out of existence.
It is likely to return this spring, stirred up by the politics of a congressional election year and the continuing evidence that the nation's trade troubles have not been solved.
Last year, the political battle over trade came to a head on the issue of protection for the American textile, shoe and copper industries, a round won cleanly last month by President Reagan, whose veto of legislation limiting imports in those areas was not challenged by Congress.
When the trade issue returns this spring and summer, it will come from a different direction -- the issue will be legislation to install a quicker trigger for American sanctions against unfair trade competitors and toughen the penalties.
The focus will be on the process of trade policy, not on specific hard-hit industries, argues one of the influential commentators on the debate, Robert Z. Lawrence, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.
This is a tack that is far more likely to succeed than did last year's congressional effort to aid specific industries, Lawrence and Brookings colleague Robert E. Litan argue in the lead article in the new issue of The Brookings Review.
That possibility troubles Lawrence and Litan and prompts them to offer an intriguing compromise in the Brookings article: a strategy that blends a commitment to free trade with a call for stronger sanctions against unfair trade, and throws in assistance for workers and communities whose industries are hard hit by international competition.
Like many of the congressional sponsors of trade legislation, Lawrence and Litan start with a key provision of current trade law -- the so-called "escape clause." The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the principal international free-trade pact of the postwar era, permits countries to "escape" GATT's obligations temporarily when imports threaten or cause serious damage to domestic industries.
U.S. law affords this escape route to American industries that can show they face such risk of serious injury. Since 1974, 60 percent of the industries requesting that relief have met that test in the eyes of the International Trade Commission, the U.S. agency that regulates the issue.
Critics want the process toughened to require the president or administration to grant import relief once such an injury finding has been made, instead of leaving the issue to the president's discretion.
Lawrence and Litan want to change the process, too, but not in the same way.
If an industry can meet the injury test in the "escape clause" and the president decides to offer help, it would have to be in the form of a four-year tariff or tax on the imports in question, rather than a limit on the amount of imports, the Brookings analysts propose.
Secondly, if the ITC rules in favor of an American industry, the government should provide automatic assistance to the workers whose jobs are lost and communities that suffer a severe reductions in their tax base because of import competition.
The money raised in tariffs would be used to help the displaced workers by offsetting some of their lost earnings if they found jobs elsewhere at lower pay, Lawrence and Litan propose.
The advantages of this approach are illustrated by the recent history of limits on Japanese auto imports, they say.
Between 1979 and January 1984, 225,000 American auto workers lost their jobs, according to the Labor Department. By January 1984, two-thirds of them had found new jobs but only after a long fall from their perch as one of the best paid of the world's industrial workers. The median earnings for these workers dropped by $4,000 a year.
In 1980, the Reagan administration worked out a four-year voluntary agreement with the Japanese government restricting the number of Japanese auto imports. The scarcity of the popular Japanese models permitted dealers to boost prices by an average of $1,000 a car in 1983, for instance, according to Brookings' Robert Crandall.
Had the administration imposed an equivalent tariff on the Japanese auto imports, it would have raised $1.85 billion in revenue that year, Lawrence and Litan calculate.
"Such a sum not only would have funded full compensation for the annual income erosion of all reemployed auto workers (total cost $603 million), but also would have generated $16,000 for each remaining unemployed worker."
By their reckoning, such a strategy could head off more damaging forms of protectionism, while upholding three key principles: The assistance would be temporary and not encourage a dependence upon federal aid; its cost would be spelled out to the voting public; and it would help, not hinder, the transition from uncompetitive factories and sectors of industries to those that can compete.