CONGRESS is hoping it can help close the trade gap. By the end of February it plans to send a mammoth trade bill to the White House for President Reagan's signature. Almost 200 members of Congress are in a conference trying to put together trade legislation that has passed the House and Senate.
Although the bill is broad in scope, its basic aim is to penalize nations that do not open their markets to American companies.
The administration has dubbed parts of the proposed law ``protectionist.'' One major concern is an amendment sponsored by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri that mandates reprisals against trade offenders. In addition, the bill opposes attempts to ``dilute'' the president's power by giving his trade representative more authority. At times the State Department or the National Security Council has become involved in trade disputes, persuading the president to forgo action against trade offenders. A team of administration officials is trying to change the legislation before President Reagan is forced to choose between signing or vetoing the bill.
The White House has agreed to work with Congress in shaping the final version of the bill, because it includes authority for the president to negotiate new tariffs under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) on a ``fast track'' basis. This means Congress can only vote approval or disapproval on tariff changes negotiated by the president.
Although the legislation is not specifically aimed at the Japanese, they are alarmed by it. Last year, Japanese companies spent $60 million and hired 105 individuals and companies to lobby against it.
Opponents of the legislation, including many American multinationals, have called the legislation a return to Smoot-Hawley, the trade legislation that iced trade during the 1930s. They point out that only 10 to 20 percent of the gap would be cut if foreign doors were opened wider to US goods.
To supporters, the bill is more like a bulldozer, leveling the trade playing field. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia says, ``It is only punitive in those cases where the trade practices of certain nations are, to put it bluntly, rapacious, using closed markets to protect their industries, while competing aggressively, and sometimes unfairly, through dumping.''
Even its supporters concede the trade bill cannot turn around the deficit. ``Make no mistake,'' says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, ``a new trade law cannot by itself cure the US trade deficit, much less reduce the mountain of international debt the United States is accumulating by running such deficits.''
Mr. Bentsen maintains, however, that the trade bill will elevate trade - putting it on par with domestic and foreign policy issues. ``Historically, not with this administration alone ... other considerations have crowded trade off the agenda,'' Bentsen says. If Congress has its way, trade will be on the top of the agenda.