CONGRESS IS once again trying to decide how far the United States can go in exporting its political standards to other countries. This time the focus is, remarkably, a financial bill to increase international support for countries with balance-of-payments troubles. The bill has already fired up an intensely ideological debate over American responsibilities to pursue social justice abroad. When it comes to the floor of the House - it's currently scheduled for Wednesday - Rep. Newton Steers (R-Md.) is going to offer a human-rights amendment. That amendment constitutes a classic case of good intentions gone wrong.
If the bill is beaten, it will be a jarring defeat for the American effort to preserve a stable world economy. If it is passed with the human-rights amendment, it will bring this country into repeated collision with other nations over their sovereignty and their internal politics. Worse, it will politicize the world's central monetary pool with genuinely ugly possibilities for future discrimination by other countries with other purposes.
The International Monetary Fund is one of those large gray institutions whose operations rarely draw much notice. But its job is crucial. World trade has soared over the past decade and created vast and unexpected flows and surges of money among countries. The IMF lends to the nations that are under pressure, to prevent defaults and currency collapses. Fear of defaults chills world trade and starts a spiral of unemployment. The danger is not hypothetical. It happened in the 1930s.
The IMF operates a central kitty to which its members contribute and from which all of them, including the United States, draw as needed. But with the huge increases in oil prices, most of the oil-importing countries are now running unprecedented trade deficits. To help carry them along, it is urgent to expand the IMF's kitty. The present plan is a $10 billion increase, with the United States contributing one-sixth and the oil-exporting countries, led by Saudi Arabia, putting up nearly half. This new credit is known, after the IMF's director, as the Witteveen Facility. The endangered bill before Congress is to authorize the American share.
It has set off an avalanche of doubts and objections in the House. Some of them have real substance, like the fear that the oil deficits are becoming self-perpetuating and are dragging down the growth of the world's economy. That's probably true, but the drag will become rapidly worse if the IMF runs short of money. You could argue that the Witteveen Facility itself solves nothing, but only buys time - probably about three years. But that's time worth having. It would be irrational to kill the bill because it only insures the world's monetary system, instead of gloriously reforming it.
Mr. Steers, incidentally, recognizes that point and intends to vote for the bill whether the House accepts his human-rights amendment or not. But a lot of his support on the amendment is coming from young Democrats who see a looming issue of ideology and social justice. When the IMF makes a loan to a country with a large and rising deficit, it usually insists as a condition that the country do what it can to help itself - which usually means cutting public spending. That strikes some of the Democrats as reactionary. The Steers amendment contains language requiring the U.S. representative to the IMF to do everything in his power to prevent "deprivation of basic human needs." When Britain got that vital loan from the IMF in late 1976, it had to agree to cancel some future social benefits. Did that contribute to deprivation? In a sense, it did. But even the poorest of Britain's people was left better off than if the pound had kept falling.
The human-rights activists are drawing on American experience at home, under a constitution - specifically, experience with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which cuts off federal money to offenders. The people supporting this amendment want to strike in the same way at repression in countries like South Africa. But South Africa can get along without IMF support. The urgent cases in the coming months are likely to be countries like Portugal, Turkey and Spain. The Arabs would doubtless be glad to help Congress declare monetary warfare against South Africa. But if the IMF is turned into a political weapon, the Arabs are likely to use it against other and more vulnerable targets.
It's true that the Witteveen Facility is a limited and rather unsatisfactory device. It cannot do much for civil rights abroad, and ought not be asked to try. It cannot carry much of a freight in social values, other than the simple principle that stable prosperity is better than the alternative. It cannot reform the wicked or chastise the sinful. It can do only one narrow, technical job. But that job is essential.