THE TRADE BILL now moving rapidly through the House is an anthology of all the congressional grievances and irritations accumulated through five years of Mr. Reagan's presidency. With a few notable exceptions, Mr. Reagan has not been very sympathetic to the kind of pain that a surge of imports inflicts on a specific industry, or the towns that depend on it. An open market will best serve the country and its economic growth, the president says. That's correct, but not very comforting to congressmen from troubled districts -- or their constituents. This bill, now reported by the Ways and Means Committee, is the House Democrats' counterattack.
It would make litigation easier for Americans fighting imports. That would lead to lower imports, and consequently lower exports, and consequently fewer jobs for Americans. For example, the most objectionable section of the bill says that countries selling too much to this country, and buying too little, will have to bring their trade surpluses down by 10 percent a year for the next four years. That is aimed, of course, at Japan, Taiwan and West Germany. The size of their surpluses is largely the result of the American mistakes that sent the dollar's exchange rate sailing too high for the past several years. The proper remedy is the decline of the exchange rate that has already taken place. But a lot of people in Congress don't trust economics and, instead, want to rely on litigation.
The bill gets into the troubling subject of the status of foreign workers. The author of this provision, Rep. Don Pease of Ohio, cites the imported clothing made by child labor in Asia. He also speaks of imports from countries that prohibit labor unions and require little or nothing in the way of standards for wages, hours and safety. Those are important concerns, and he is surely right when he says that trade has to benefit producers, as well as consumers and trading companies. But he would try to ensure it by allowing American companies to cite denials of workers' rights when fighting imports. That will do more to reduce imports here than to improve working conditions abroad. A more promising approach, as the administration urges, is to negotiate international standards in the next round of trade talks -- although, to give Mr. Pease a point, that argument would carry more weight if the administration were pressing workers' rights more actively in its trade policy.
Frustration rarely produces good legislation. This bill is a shin-kicker, intended to attract attention. In that, it is succeeding very effectively. But among American industries, it will hurt the most competitive and help only the least competitive.