ECONOMIC isolationism is on the rise again in Congress, as the votes on the outrageously protectionist textile bill show. The House has now failed to override President Bush's veto by 275 votes for the bill to 152 against -- not quite the necessary two-thirds, but perilously close to it. So much for the theory that countries' economic interests determine their political attitudes. The United States is a trading nation on a tremendous scale, and to maintain their present standard of living Americans are going to have to increase their exports steadily. But the textile bill is a device to close markets, and the veto is by no means the end of the story.
A long process of worldwide negotiations to open markets and write better trade rules is now coming to its climax. These talks are known collectively as the Uruguay Round, and there are a lot of things on the table there that American exporters urgently want and need -- better access to foreign markets, better protection for patents and copyrights, faster and fairer settlement of trade disputes. But it's increasingly probable that this whole gigantic effort is going to collapse.
There are two barriers to agreement, both of them so far intractable. The European Community refuses to give up its disruptive and damaging practice of dumping its hugely subsidized farm surpluses on world markets at prices far below production cost. Equally intransigent, Congress here in the United States continues to insist on protecting textile and clothing manufacturers from imports.
Even though the textile bill has now been vetoed and is dead, it has been extremely useful to the textile producers. It has enabled them to demonstrate that, while they don't have a two-thirds majority, they certainly have much more than a simple majority. That's all they need to block the trade law reforms that the Uruguay Round will -- if it's successful -- produce.
The override vote was a warning by the friends of the textile industry to the American negotiators not to try to weaken the arrangements that currently protect it. That's an ominous message. If the United States won't give on textiles, and the Europeans won't give on agricultural dumping, there's not much in the deal for the smaller and poorer countries of the world. They will walk out, and the talks will fail.
There's nothing that the textile industry would like better. But limitations on foreign trade are a threat to American growth and economic strength. At a time when the newly freed countries of Eastern Europe are reaching fervently toward open markets, the American Congress is uncertainly shuffling in the opposite direction.