THE TEXTILE INDUSTRY is insatiable in its pursuit of protection from foreign competition. Given a little protection, it wanted a lot. Given a lot, it now wants more. In behalf of the textile mills, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) persuaded the Senate last week to vote for a highly destructive little piece of legislation. By prohibiting the United States from making any tariff concessions on textiles, it would do serious damage to the arduous and complicated international trade negotiations now under way in Geneva. If the United States were to pull one large category of goods off the table and refuse to discuss it, the other trading countries would quickly retaliate. The question for Congress is whether it wants to penalize everybody else - including, for example, South Carolina farmers - to give a narrow and unwarranted benefit to the textile mills.
The expansion of world trade has contributed a good deal over the years to the rising American standard of living. That's why Congress, in the 1974 Trade Act, gave the president broad authority to take part in a new round of negotiations to cut tariffs and the other trade barriers. Those negotiations have turned into the world's biggest poker game, with 96 nations taking part. It has been going on for five years, and it has to end by early 1980 because the Trade Act authority will expire. As the bargaining enters its final stages, everything has become tied to everything else. The Hollings amendment, by changing the rules at the end of the game, would inflict grievous damage. It would, for example, offer the Europeans a marvelous excuse for refusing to discuss their rigorous limits on American farm products.
How bad is the foreign pressure on American textiles? At present, not very. There's been a lot of distress in that industry over the years and, following a surge of imports in the late 1960s, the United States began working out import-restraint agreements with the countries that are the principal textile producers. There are now 18 of these agreements in effect. Since they went into effect in the early 1970s, employment in textiles has been fairly stable. Imports are currently rising, but the market is expanding and the domestic mills' profits are currently up.
The government has hardly abandoned the textile industry to the harsh winds of world competition. The tariffs on textiles and clothing are several times as high as the average for other manufactured goods. The American negotiators at Geneva now propose to reduce those textile tariffs by one-fourth, in slow stages over the next decade. The Hollings amendment is written to prevent that - snatching back, in effect, a large piece of the negotiating authority that Congress granted four years ago in the Trade Act.
The Senate has not yet passed the bill to which the Hollings amendment is attached. It still has time to change its mind. Against the demands of the textile industry, it needs to weigh the broader interest of American industry and agriculture that now export $130 billion worth of goods annually into markets that will be preserved and expanded by a successful conclusion to the Geneva negotiations. The Senate might also keep it in mind that high tariffs for American producers mean high prices for American consumers. Protectionist legislation protects nothing more effectively than the inflation rate.