Last year's record trade deficit prompted bipartisan calls from Congress yesterday for tougher trade laws as representatives of the domestic steel and textile industries complained about soaring imports that they said Reagan administration policies have failed to stop.
Their comments came after the government reported a record trade deficit of $148.5 billion for 1985, more than $25 billion greater than the previous high mark set in 1984.
Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), appearing on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," urged swift passage of a bill awaiting Senate floor action that calls for retaliation against Japanese exports. He also urged action to cut the budget deficit, and said the Senate should change portions of a House-passed tax bill that would hurt America's international competitiveness.
He joined Democrats in calling for new trade laws, including the promise from Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) that "I'll be in the forefront of that effort." But Bentsen said he expects the Reagan administration "to continue its refusal to establish a trade policy" and "to actively oppose the passage of legislation by Congress." For that reason, he expressed doubts that a comprehensive trade bill would be signed into law this year.
Meanwhile, in Japan -- which is likely to be the main target of congressional moves because of its $49.7 billion surplus with the United States -- officials vowed to act to ease trade frictions between Washington and Tokyo. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone told the Japanese Diet (parliament) that government actions would cut 10 percent from its trade surplus in the second half of this year, the Associated Press reported.
"We must make an all-out effort to dissolve the trade friction," he said.
"The enormous trade imbalance is not desirable even for Japan," said Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe. "We are fully aware of the U.S. dissatisfaction."
The state minister in charge of external economic affairs, Masumi Esaki, called the massive U.S. trade deficit with Japan -- by far America's largest with any country and equal to one-third of the entire U.S. deficit -- "a serious political problem rather than an economic matter."
In his morning television appearance, Danforth acknowledged that top officials of the Japanese government recognize the problems caused by the trade surplus. But he questioned whether their attitudes had filtered down to bureaucrats in the government and to the public, which will have to increase its purchases of foreign products.
The Senate Republican, chairman of the Finance Committee's trade panel, said Japan concentrates on its overseas sales and "imports as little as it can get away with."
U.S. steel and textile makers have been among the American industries hit hardest by rising imports.
Although steel imports dipped last year, a December surge of foreign shipments lifted the 1985 totals above the import limitation goal set 15 months ago by President Reagan to give the domestic industry time to become internationally competitive.
Imports last year reached 24.3 million tons, an estimated 25.2 percent of U.S. consumption, compared with the 1984 import total of 26.2 million tons, 26.4 percent of the domestic market. President Reagan said in October 1984 that imports should be limited to 20.2 percent of the market through a series of voluntary restraint agreements negotiated with key suppliers.
"The domestic industry is gravely concerned about the future of the president's steel program and its effectiveness in achieving its stated goals," said Donald H. Trautlein, chairman of the American Iron and Steel Institute and head of Bethlehem Steel Corp.
"The industry is disappointed," he continued, "that as 1985 ended, the import data did not show a sustained and sizable downward trend in the direction of the president's specific objections," he continued.
Steel imports dropped this fall, indicating the president's program was beginning to take hold. But that view was dashed when December import totals soared to 2.1 million tons, which amounts to 26.6 percent of domestic consumption. Those totals were almost as high as December 1984, when imports captured 31.2 percent of the market.