The House Ways and Means Committee, back from a weekend seminar at a Florida Gulf Coast resort, began work in earnest this week to craft a broad-based trade bill under a strict timetable that would get it to the floor by mid-May.
"I think we are on target. We are moving," said Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) of the Ways and Means Committee, whose trade subcommittee opens hearing on trade legislation tomorrow and Thursday with a series of witnesses from business and industry.
"As a result of the session, it is clearer than ever that trade policy can't be written with a pair of six-shooters. I hope we can meet our obligations with a bill that carries more balance than bombast," Rostenkowski said.
He was described as fully committed to a trade bill this year under the timetable set by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), which is a change from six months ago, when he was lukewarm toward a trade bill.
"We have taken a good first step toward understanding and dealing with key issues, but we are a long way from reaching agreement on any of them," said Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on Ways and Means. "The issues are complex and cut across party lines. They have the potential for giving rise to unusual alliances and rivalries in the Congress."
He questioned, however, whether the Republican-controlled Senate, with its Finance Committee deep into tax-overhaul legislation, would be able to handle trade legislation this year.
Committee staff members who attended the seminar last weekend at Destin, Fla., said a broad consensus developed there among Republicans and Democrats to go ahead with drafting a bill, although U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter told them the Reagan administration believes this is not a good year to get trade legislation passed that is not highly protectionist. Nonetheless, Yeutter was praised for his flexibility and willingness to work with the committee on getting a bill to the house floor, committee sources said.
The committee is likely to try to walk a thin line that allows it to strengthen U.S. laws against unfair trade practices without becoming protectionist, committee aides said.
They added that the committee will try to lessen the time it takes to reach a decision in a complaint of unfair trade tactics, especially with high-technology products that have a short shelf life, and to develop procedures for using these cases as wedges to promote trade liberalization by forcing other countries to remove import barriers.
There is still a debate among the lawmakers over proposals to place curbs on presidential discretion in implementing recommendations for trade sanctions, a move that Yeutter said the Reagan administration opposes.
Committee members seemed to have agreed on increasing adjustment assistance to workers and communities who lose jobs because of imports and on giving the administration flexible authority to negotiate a new round of global trade talks, staff members said.
There was also a great deal of discussion, stimulated by outside experts at the seminar such as C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics, about auctioning import quotas instead of giving them away. This idea, also floated in speeches and congressional testimony by Paula Stern, head of the International Trade Commission, would reduce some of the adverse domestic economic effects of quotas.
These positions emerged at a seminar that trade lawyer Richard Cunningham, one of the outside speakers, described as a "clash of ideas" between consultants who were "quite free-trade in outlook" and the committee members who are "under pressure to take strong action on import problems."
Cunningham said the two sides ended the discussions Sunday with "a great degree of harmony." A committee staff member said the emphasis by the outside consultant of the larger issues that affect the trade deficit made the congressmen realize the complexity of drafting a trade bill.
"Legislation in the trade area is not just a matter of confrontation between protectionists and free traders," said Duncan.
He added that the country does not need "a monstrous grab-bag of a bill that promises everything to everybody yet fails to enhance the competitiveness of domestic industry or the United States position in the world marketplace."