CONGRESS' TRADE bill contains one thing that President Reagan wants badly -- authority to negotiate the next round of world trade agreements. The bill has many other useful things tucked into its vast bulk. The welcome emphasis on intellectual property rights is one example, extension of the Caribbean Basin Initiative another. But it also carries a heavy freight of protectionist padding.
The congressional conference committee is now at work on the final version of the bill. It is starting with the minor issues, and after March 8 -- Super Tuesday -- it will proceed to the major ones. Before it makes the large decisions, the leadership apparently wants to see how the vote goes in those primaries -- and particularly the vote for Richard Gephardt, whose campaign has made a major issue of trade and the charge that current law puts Americans at a disadvantage.
This trade bill is the consequence of a great accumulation of grievances among American producers over the past six years, the years in which the high dollar created a huge trade deficit that persists even though the dollar has fallen. Last year the United States imported five dollars' worth of goods for every three dollars' worth that it exported.
Businesses hurt by the surge of imports have accused the administration of being slow and unwilling to respond in cases of unfairness. That's why much of the trade bill -- the parts the White House dislikes most -- attempts to diminish the discretion and flexibility that present law allows the president. It tries to force him to take action and to retaliate. But as other countries see it, the bill is an effort by Congress to establish American definitions of fairness and force the rest of the world to accept them.
The bill contains many legal mechanisms to help American producers hurt by imports. In this space we have recently described some of them. The administration is right in arguing that other countries will quickly seize these precedents and use them against U.S. exports.
That's the crucial objection to the protectionist sections of the trade bill, regardless of what happens on Super Tuesday. American exports are now beginning to rise strongly. They are going to have to soar if the United States is to balance its trade without a dire recession. The protectionist parts of the trade bill are yesterday's legislation. The United States is now entering a time in which it needs its trade law to push hard toward cooperation abroad and wider opportunities for its growing exports.