As the trade deficit grew and more industries were hurt by imports, Congress began hearing more complaints from U.S. companies about their problems in getting relief from tough foreign competition or what they considered to be unfair trade practices. In general, the companies complained that either the laws were too complex or the legal costs are too high for small and medium businesses to bear.

In response, Congress last year ordered the International Trade Commission to make an extra effort to help firms deal with the complexity of the trade laws and, if necessary, provide technical assistance to small companies that want to file trade complaints.

The ITC's Trade Remedy Assistance Center has been in operation for three weeks, and ITC Chairman Paula Stern said it already has received 40 inquiries.

"We have always been attuned to businesses, large and small," Stern said. "Now that we are more visible, we hope we will be more responsive to the public."

The center offers information on the remedies available under a variety of U.S. laws to companies that believe they have suffered because of unfair foreign competition. The center also will offer technical assistance when small businesses want to bring a case before the ITC, as it did last year when a U.S. manufacturer of woodwind instruments brought a complaint against an Italian competitor.

Stern said the ITC staff has to walk a fine line in such cases to ensure that its investigations remain independent and that it does not prejudice individual commissioners' decisions. For that reason, the Trade Remedy Assistance Center has been isolated from other areas of the ITC.

Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), one of the driving forces behind the center, had complained last September that small industries in his state, such as potato farmers, fishermen and lumber mills, "have confronted insoluble problems while trying to seek trade relief."

"It was complex, costly and in the end illusory," he said of the firms' experiences, and added that small businesses' frustration with U.S. trade laws was growing.

Major industries such as steelmakers budget hundreds of thousands of dollars for each trade complaint they file with the ITC or the Commerce Department. Such sums are not available to small businesses, but the hope is that through the new program, the ITC can cut their costs and increase their understanding of what U.S. trade laws can and cannot do.

OF FEET AND FISH . . . With the ITC preparing a new report on the effect shoe imports have had on the domestic industry, three commissioners are heading to Maine Monday to visit shoe factories. The three -- David Rohr, Seely G. Lodwick and Alfred E. Eckes Jr. -- will be shown around by Maine's congressional delegation, which has taken an interest in the ITC investigation.

The Senate Finance Committee asked the ITC to conduct the new investigation after the commission unanimously concluded last year that the shoe industry was not being hurt by imports because so many of its companies remain profitable.

The ITC commissioners have another out-of-town investigation this month. They will travel to New Orleans for a hearing March 21 on a complaint by Gulf shrimp fishermen that they are being hurt by South American fishermen.