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When it comes to closing doors on trade, U.S. is open to criticism System of tariffs, quotas inconsistent


WASHINGTON -- President Bush and Democrats want Japan and other countries to open their markets to U.S. goods, but in the international trade debate the United States does not come to the table with clean hands.

In comparison with Japan and other major U.S. trading partners, the United States is less protectionist, but many barriers to imports remain.

Quotas double the price of sugar and limit imports per American to no more than seven peanuts, a pound of dairy cheese and a lick of ice cream each year.

Fresh cream and milk are banned; frozen cream may be purchased only from New Zealand. And the Customs Service recently turned back a shipment of buttered croissants from France because it violated a quota on French butter shipments.

Imports of men's heavy and worsted wool suits are capped at 1.2 million, the equivalent of one for each male manager and professional every dozen years.

The Commerce Department has imposed punitive duties on martial arts uniforms from Taiwan, awning window cranks from El Salvador and the tiny pads for woodwind instrument keys from Italy after determining that they were being sold, or "dumped," at unfairly low prices.

This sprawling and inconsistent collection of quotas, tariffs and other barriers reflects lobbying by many industries, as well as the occasional national-security concern.

The result has been higher prices for U.S. consumers and fewer opportunities for millions of people in developing countries to escape poverty by growing crops or stitching clothes for people in wealthy countries.

The Reagan and Bush administrations have limited imports of steel and computerized factory machines, created customs processing fees for incoming merchandise and tightened controls on imports of sugary foods and natural-fiber clothing.

"There is so much hypocrisy and deception shot through our whole trade law system," said James P. Bovard, a Washington trade analyst and author who studies U.S. import barriers. "The extent of American protectionism is much worse than many people believe."

Administration officials acknowledge that there is little rhyme or reason to the nation's trade barriers, but they contend that the barriers pale by comparison with those of other countries.

"It's hard to say any country that's enduring a $65 billion to $70 billion trade deficit is a protectionist country," said J. Michael Farren, the undersecretary of commerce for international trade.

"It's absolutely absurd to say that this market is closed or restricted. We have the most open market in the world."

Economists at international organizations tend to think that the United States, while far from pure, at least has a somewhat better record than its major trading partners.

According to the World Bank, for example, Japan has high trade barriers covering a quarter of its imports. The United States and the European Community have such barriers for only a sixth of their imports.

The European Community's record is also worse than those figures might indicate, said Alexander J. Yeats, principal economist in the World Bank's international trade division.

Much of the European Community's imports enter duty free from allies in Africa and Europe, so that the brunt of the community's protectionism falls on other developing countries, the United States and Japan, he said.

Yet Americans still pay as much as $75 billion a year more for goods because of import fees and restrictions -- a sum equal to nearly a sixth of the nation's annual import bill of $490 billion.

Individually, the costs pile up slowly -- here a couple of extra dollars for a Hong Kong garment, there a few extra pennies for sugar from the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius. But taken together, the losses to U.S. consumers are significant because of a political system that tends to tax the majority to help the few who are hurting.

The United States has 3,600 product quotas, mostly for apparel and agriculture, and a few tariffs as high as 458 percent, Mr. Bovard said. But most industrial products are subject to only a modest tariff.

A succession of international trade agreements has made it harder for the United States and its major trading partners to impose quotas or high tariffs on industrial goods.

The response, in the United States and overseas, has been to devise laws and regulations that keep out specific products from a few countries for social policy as well as for economic reasons.

Federal contract rules setting aside money for minority businesses exclude foreign companies. And environmental groups have won a court decision banning imports of low-priced tuna from several dozen countries because they buy tuna from three countries that kill many dolphins.

A federal labeling regulation prevents Italy and Spain from labeling their bubbly wine as champagne because it does not come from the French region of that name, but it allows U.S. wineries to do so.

U.S. law also allows companies, labor unions and the federal government to file legal cases against foreign producers charging that they get unfair government subsidies or are dumping goods at unfairly low prices in the United States.

As a result of such cases, the United States has imposed special tariffs on pistachio nuts from Iran, residential door locks from Taiwan and frozen french fries from Canada.

These cases are easy to win and therefore are filed more often when the dollar's value is high, as it was in the mid-1980s, or during an economic downturn, as occurred a decade ago.

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