AS THE TRADE BILL rolls heavily onto the floor of the Senate, it's going to turn up the volume of the quarrel over this country's economic relations with the rest of the world. All the grievances about other countries' practices are going to get louder, and all of the fears about decline in the American ability to compete. As an indication of their interest in this bill, nine of the Senate's 16 standing committees claimed jurisdiction over one part or another of it. Each of the nine has produced its own bill, and now the nine have been rolled together into one vast wheelbarrow-sized superbill.
In its current ungainly form, this bill moves in two directions at once. It contains the crucial extension of the president's authority to negotiate further trade agreements. That's the element that makes passage of a bill essential, carrying forward the American tradition of leading the world toward wider trade. This country's economy, and the world's, have grown faster in the years since World War II than in any similar period in history, and one indispensable reason for it has been the steady expansion of international trade. But rapid growth exacts high costs from the industries that can't bear the pressure of world competition, and the committees have anxiously stuffed much language, of the most atrociously special-interest sort, into the bill to protect threatened friends, constituents and contributors.
For example, there's a provision in this bill that allows an industry to get protection simply because it's being injured by imports -- even if the imports are traded entirely fairly. Present law permits protection, but says that the president can refuse it if, in his judgment, it's not in the broad national interest. This trade bill would delete any reference to broad national interest -- the bane of the protectionist lobby -- and in many cases would make relief automatic regardless of its cost to the general public. You will find the fingerprints of the shoe industry all over that one.
Similarly, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen has blown a big kiss to the domestic oil industry in the form of language requiring a presidential energy plan -- the implication is higher prices -- when imports reach half of national consumption. (For Sen. Bentsen's defense of it, see the opposite page.) If the country seriously wants to hold down oil imports, the way to do it is higher gasoline taxes. But the oil producers would prefer the kind of intervention that raises revenues for them, not for the U.S. Treasury.
The senators need to hold the bill on the floor long enough to give themselves a chance to see everything that's riding along in this overloaded omnibus, and to spot the genuinely harmful baggage that needs to be pitched out.