AMERICAN LAW since 1916 has allowed shipping firms serving American ports to participate in shipping cartels, if they get the Federal Maritime Commission's permission; in that case, they are exempt from the antitrust laws that otherwise would prohibit any cartel-type agreement. The FMC is not supposed to approve agreements that are anti-competitive or against the public interest, however; and in practice, the FMC's lengthy procedures can delay considerably the adoption of new cartel agreements.

For that reason, shipping interests are seeking what they dub now the Shipping Act of 1982. It would explicitly permit antitrust exemption for specific kinds of agreements, as well as allow shipping lines to enter into other agreements to prevent competition among themselves--a provision that covers a lot of territory. There are some provisions, many inserted at the initiative of Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, that would prohibit some anti-competitive practices. But on balance the bill is intended to, and would, expedite approval of agreements not to compete. That, it seems to us, is a move in exactly the wrong direction.

Today, the House is expected to consider a motion to suspend the rules and consider this Shipping Act under a procedure that does not allow amendment. Suspension of the rules is ordinarily reserved for noncontroversial measures, but in this case serious legislators like Robert McClory (R-Ill.) and Don Edwards (D-Calif.) are opposed and want to offer amendments. This procedure does require a two-thirds vote, and although the Shipping Act enjoys widespread support in Congress -- support that may not be unrelated to the large campaign contributions the well-rganized maritime interests give every election year -- it is not clear that its backers can muster the two-thirds they need to win.

We hope that this issue is not settled in this way, in the crush that always comes at the end of the congressional session; some congressional candidates out there should call on incumbents who support the Shipping Act to explain why they have backed an extraordinary procedure to support a measure that would expedite approval of anti-competitive practices and would tend to make products of all kinds more expensive to consumers.