WITH A COUPLE of well-placed vetoes, President Carter has knocked down two of the more out-rageously protectionist bills that Congress left for him. As Congress saw it, the subjects were textiles and beef. But as Mr. Carter saw it, there was only one subject - the future inflation rate. For a lot of commodities, the most effective check on rising prices is the pressure of competition from abroad. That's the point that Mr. Carter was making with those vetoes.
The textile bill would have been particularly destructive if it had gone into effect. It would have forbidden American negotiators from bargaining on textiles in the worldwide trade talks now in their final stages at Geneva. If this country were suddenly to refuse to discuss the tariffs on cloth goods, other governments would have retaliated by pulling off the list the items that are sensitive in their own politics. That would have been had for American exporters. But it would also have been bad for American consumers, extending an open invitation to the domestic textile industry to raise prices without much fear of being undercut from abroad.
The beef bill was an unhappy example of useful legislation to which a mischievous rider had been attached. The issue is the amount of imported beef to be permitted into this country. The present import-quota formula is perverse, reducing imports when U.S. production is low and raising them when the domestic supply rises. The bill was originally written to correct that anomaly. But the beef industry managed to add a clause abolishing, except in the most extreme emergencies, the president's authority to lift the quotas. That authority is a necessary safety valve. Since wholesale beef prices have risen nearly one third over the past year, with more to come, it's an extremely poor time to abolish presidential discretion. The beef industry is entitled to a better return than it has been able to get in the past several years, but it is not entitled to drive prices through the supermarket roof.
Not by accident, the White House announced the vetoes at the same time that it made a slightly more equivocal decision on farm policy for the coming year. It's a matter of the rules governing grain price supports, and the amount of land that farmers will be required to set aside to qualify for payments. To its credit, the administration rose above the temptation to announce a high-price policy before the election. Instead, it waited a few days longer and decided on rules that, with normal weather, will mean little upward push on food prices. If the administration were worrying only about inflation, no doubt it would have built in a little more insurance against bad weather, and reduced the set-asides a bit more. But Mr. Carter does not want to add further fuel to the farmer's very audible grievances, and the set asides for the coming year constitute, at least, a reasonable compromise.
It's possible to argue that Mr. Carter really had no choice on these three issues. Had he refused to kill both of those bills, and had he been any more generous to the farmers on the grain set-asides, he would have gravely undercut his own very recent pronouncements about the campaign against inflation. But these are all intricate technical matters to which consumers do not pay much attention, while producers press their interest vociferously. Any effective anti-inflation campaign proceeds only at a price, and it is a political price paid by the tenant of the White House.