Major business organizations have rebuffed Reagan administration efforts to enlist their support to block trade legislation and instead have urged the White House to work with the Senate to craft a bill that the president could sign.
The Reagan administration has taken the position that it wants no trade legislation for fear that any measure Congress passes will be too protectionist.
But even business groups that traditionally have opposed protectionist measures are pressing for a trade bill. These include the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the Emergency Committee for American Trade (ECAT).
Business leaders, under the pressure of four years of record trade deficits, are taking an increasingly more aggressive stance against what they see as pervasive unfair trade practices around the world that allow other countries to block U.S. products and flood this country with their goods.
There is, moreover, a growing view in business circles that the Reagan administration has ineffectively dealt with the trade deficit and only acts when threatened by congressional action.
R. E. Heckert, chairman of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., said the flurry of administration trade actions before the House passed its trade bill last month "reflects the continuing dynamics of trade policy in our government: Congress acts, the administration reacts."
"Trade legislation is one important way to help rectify the trade crisis," said Edson W. Spencer, chairman of the Business Roundtable's international trade task force and chairman of Honeywell Inc., a major exporter.
"However, the White House is stonewalling the legislative initiatives of Congress. Its refusal to work with Congress guarantees passage of bad trade legislation and makes a presidential veto a self-fulfilling prophecy," he added in an address to the Roundtable's annual meeting here this week.
In addition, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) urged the administration to deal with the Senate on trade. He is concerned that the Republicans could lose control of the Senate this fall if they fail to come up with trade legislation in the wake of last year's record $148.5 billion deficit.
"If the legislation we develop in the Senate is to be effective and nonpartisan in nature, it is important for the administration to join us now in a concrete, detailed dialogue," Dole wrote U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter.
There are indications that the White House is getting the message. Chamber of Commerce Chairman Edward Donley said he expects new signs of administration action on trade legislation to emerge soon, partly as a result of pressure from the business community.
As an indication that the administration may be developing a new strategy on trade legislation, Yeutter and Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige met yesterday with Alfred H. Kingon, a key White House aide on trade issues. Baldrige and Yeutter have favored dealing with Congress on trade legislation, but they have been cautioned against it by a group led by White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan and Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III.
In a speech in New York last night to the National Foreign Trade Council, Baker said business holds "a special responsibility to work for free trade. Your opinions are respected. Your influence on the course of events can be considerable. The cry for protectionism today is clear and forceful. The voice of free trade must also be heard."
While none of the business organizations has endorsed the House-passed bill, which President Reagan called "kamikaze legislation" in a speech to the NAM, all have praised certain elements.
After hearing the president, for instance, the NAM board gave its support to parts of the bill. "For all its faults, the House bill makes this important contribution to U.S. policy: It recognizes that the United States has an enormous trade trade problem of special concern to manufacturers," NAM President A. B. Trowbridge said.
He said constructive legislation can come out of Congress this year "if the administration works actively with the Senate now, and later with the House and Senate, on the development of legislation that gives the country a new perspective on trade policy, one that better serves America's trading interests than the policies of the past."
The Chamber of Commerce, while opposing the House trade bill as a whole, supported parts of it, including a section that would force the president to retaliate against unfair trade practices that violate trade agreements. The administration says that provision will limit its flexibility to negotiate trade agreements.
Other sections of the House bill that have won endorsements from business groups include provisions that would press U.S. access to foreign telecommunications markets; strengthen protection against piracy of U.S. copyrights and patents; ease the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; increase export promotion activities, including making greater use of Export-Import Bank "mixed credits"; and loosen export controls on high-technology products.
Almost across the board, the business groups joined the administration in opposing other major elements of the House bill, especially a section that would force Japan, Taiwan and West Germany to lower their trade surpluses or face retaliation.