Every once in a while, legislation comes along that is so bad even the sponsors want the president to veto it.
Of course, they cannot admit it publicly, but the sponsors of the trade bill going to the House floor this week secretly must be counting on a veto. They have not tried to conceal their desire to win votes this fall by voting for a trade bill that "gets tough" with our trading partners. But they must know their short-term gain would be offset by massive American job losses down the road.
There are many things the administration doesn't like about the House trade bill. But the worst is that it breaks so many rules of international trade that our trading partners would close overseas markets to U.S. products, costing American jobs.
Some have suggested Congress is simply trying to send the administration a message, but that message was sent and received -- loud and clear -- a year ago. And that is a mighty poor way to rationalize bad legislation in any case.
The administration agrees that the U.S. trade deficit is a serious problem. President Reagan has an aggressive program to fight unfair trade practices abroad, to negotiate market-opening agreements with other nations and to address the underlying economic fundamentals that have distorted trade flows. We have initiated or accelerated cases challenging the unfair trading practices of Japan, the European Community, South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil. We have made important strides toward negotiations to strengthen the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which governs international trade. And we have seen the dollar decline against other major currencies, so U.S. products are now priced far more competitively in world markets.
This is not to say we have solved the trade deficit; that will require a lot more hard work. And it will require time. Businessmen do not change their order books overnight just because exchange rates have moved.
It is also not to say the trade laws cannot be improved. But any changes should be responsible ones aimed at opening markets to U.S. exports, not at closing markets in the United States. And they should be passed with a bipartisan consensus.
Unfortunately, the bill pending before the House is neither bipartisan nor responsible. It was rammed through a number of House committees without addressing the concerns of Republican members. It is festooned with special-interest provisions, measures that are pure protectionism, and enough GATT-illegal actions to start a dozen trade wars.
For example, the bill would require an annual 10 percent reduction in our bilateral trade deficits with Japan, Taiwan and West Germany, through unilateral tariffs or quotas if necessary. This is superficially appealing, but as a real world solution it is dead wrong. Because it would violate our international obligations, other nations simply would respond by impeding our exports to the same degree that we impede theirs. As a consequence, our trade deficit would not improve. Our unwise action would only have reduced trade in both directions, costing us lost jobs and gaining nothing in the process.
The bill also would require the president to bring an unfair trade practice case against any nation that does not meet so-called "international" standards for worker rights. This would be impossible to implement fairly and might make the United States itself the target of similar complaints by nations that have more comprehensive labor laws. Though worker rights are a legitimate issue for negotiations, it is arrogant to attempt unilaterally to impose standards -- of any kind -- on the rest of the world.
Another provision would change the law concerning temporary relief for industries that cannot compete with imports so that an industry could receive relief even before it was shown that imports had damaged that industry. Such import relief should not be given so cavalierly, because it has a cost. Nations whose trade is injured because of our action have a legal right to "compensation." That means some of our most efficient industries -- those that are internationally competitive -- would pay the price for protecting less efficient ones.
There are other provisions in the bill that are equally troublesome. Most of them reflect a lack of confidence in America's ability to compete. Many have a thin market-opening veneer, but their timetables and procedures are so impractical that the real effect would be to turn America into a protectionist fortress.
America did not grow strong by erecting trade barriers and reneging on international obligations. We grew strong through competition. Our trade deficit is a major problem, but we can overcome it by making the right policy moves, not the wrong ones. To "save" jobs today by passing legislation that will assuredly cost us far more jobs in the future is sheer folly.
With jobs already at record levels, inflation under control, interest rates declining, oil prices at reasonable levels and America respected throughout the world, some in Congress see trade as their last remaining political issue in the November elections. They think they've got to "do something" about trade, regardless of how irresponsible it is.
If those who vote for the House trade bill really are hoping the president will save them from embarrassment by vetoing it, they're likely to get their wish.