America's leading corporations have retreated from their support of free trade, a key congressman on trade legislation said here today.
As a result, Congress is likely to pass "unwise" protectionist legislation this summer, said Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), one of Congress' leading free-trade proponents.
"We're going to do something wrong before the recess," he told reporters after meeting with the Business Council, composed of the chief executive officers of America's largest and most powerful corporations.
He said Congress is likely to pass a textile-quota bill that has 240 cosponsors in the House and import-restricting legislation being drafted by Rep. Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's trade panel.
Part of the reason for Congress' rush to pass restrictive trade laws is a change in the mood of American business, Frenzel said.
"Attitudes have changed drastically in this crowd and in the whole business community," he said. "The very people who a decade ago were leading the free-trade coalition are now interested in protecting what they have. That tells you where the country has moved."
The only free-traders left, he said, are wheat growers, soybean farmers and retailers, and "that's a pretty thin line of defense against protectionism."
Ruben F. Mittler, chairman of the Business Council and head of TRW Inc., disagreed, saying most council members are internationally minded and realize the importance of an open world-trade system.
But G. William Miller, former Treasury secretary and former Federal Reserve Board chairman, who now runs a Washington investment firm, said "fairness" -- which has become a code word for retaliation against what are seen as another country's unfair trade practices -- is a big issue here this year.
The change also was noted by executives from smokestack industries who have pushed most vigorously in past years for trade protection. The smokestack sector has been hit hardest by imports.
The heads of two of the country's largest steel companies, Bethlehem Steel Corp. Chairman Donald H. Trautlein and U.S. Steel Corp. Chairman David M. Roderick, for instance, said they found amusing the shift they sensed this week among many members of the Business Council.
Previously, executives from import-injured industries, such as textiles and steel, were almost alone in seeking restrictions on foreign goods. Now, Frenzel noted, such high-technology companies as Motorola Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are among those who have become "less aggressive free-traders than before."
"That change," he continued, "has had an enormous impact on Congress," which sees high-technology companies as the "hope for America's future."