Quietly, Democratic policy makers in Congress have buried the ill-advised Bentsen- Gepfor an import surcharge on Japanese and other goods. Instead, they have formulated a different and more sensible set of legislative proposals to deal with the American trade deficit.
Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) concedes that "the time isn't ripe" now for a 20 percent added tariff on Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and Brazilian imports, although he holds out hope for "some version of it" in the coming months.
But his colleagues write it off completely. Influential Democrats in both the Senate and House now stress the need for monetary reform to bring down the overvalued dollar and stricter enforcement of existing trade laws to deal with illegal barriers to U.S. exports. And more support is being generated for a new round of multilateral trade negotiations under the aegis of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade.
This is not to say that the protectionist hysteria has died out completely. The Japanese -- at whom most of the punitive legislation is really aimed -- would be making a mistake if they came to that conclusion. No one can tell precisely what will emerge from Congress in 1986, an election year.
But the dollar is off more than 20 percent from its February peaks, and the Reagan administration is showing a new willingness to scrap with its European and Asian partners on trade issues ranging from pasta to steel to copyrights. So the emphasis on Capitol Hill seems to be swinging from special-interest pleading for bilateral "market-opening" measest, multilateral approach.
Yet, Congress seems to be missing one key element: it attributes the overvalued dollar almost wholly to the U.S. budget deficit. The Democrats see the trade deficit as a good political issue for 1986, and choose to lay the blame on the Reagan administration's fiscal policy.
True, that's where a good part of the blame should be placed. But what can't be ignored is the responsibility of the Japanese and West German governments to help correct the currency misalignment. They need to boost their domestic economies to offset the slower pace of the American economy.
Fearing inflation, Japan and West Germany still cling to export-led growth policies. Instead, these two major nations should be creating greater internal demand that would boost the standard of living of their own citizens -- and, for a change, attract imports from the United States.
This is especially true of Japan. But in an interview in New York last month, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone told this reporter that he rejects truly stimulative measures that would increase the Japanese budget deficit.
And West Germany considers its present growth rate of less than 2 percent stimulative enough -- even though unemployment is close to 10 percent and Germany faces a long-term decline in population. In sharp contrast to the Japanese shortage of adequate housing, homes and flats are in surplus in West Germany, with a resultant drop in prices and rents and a sharp contraction in the construction industry.
A movement toward expansion by the German and Japanese was supposed to undergird the now famous Group of Five agreement in New York on Sept. 22, to intervene in the currency markets to depress the dollar. As yet, that expansion hasn't taken place -- and, without some pressure, is not likely to.
Treasury Assistant Secretary David Mulford told Congress this week that West Germany was the least responsive of the G-5 nations in carrying out the Sept. 22 agreement.
Yet, the congressional call for a change in macroeconomic policy is largely a call for change in American policy. "We want the administration to get off the dime," says a Democratic aide. The need for German and Japanese expansion is mentioned, but this part of the solution needs greater and more explicit emphasis, if Congress takes itself seriously as a shaper of trade policy.
The only way Nakasone can drive through a more stimulative expansionist policy at home -- against the will of a strongly entrenched Ministry of Finance -- would be under pressure from his friend "Ron." And, in turn, "Ron" could put greater pressure on his friend "Yasu" if he felt some heat from Congress on this score.
This would be timely: there is a sense among many Japanese that consumers are being deprived (especially of adequate housing) while excess national wealth piles up, only to finance investments abroad. A thoughtful Japanese insider thinks the average Japanese would welcome developments that would increase the amenities of life in Tokyo and other overcrowded cities. "We hear all aboutubles of Europe," he said with a trace of envy, "but they sure seem to be living well."