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The Times Poll : Nation Strongly Backs Restriction of Imports

September 29, 1985|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

Americans, concerned about jobs, strongly support congressional attempts to restrict foreign imports and tend to blame foreign countries for the trade imbalance rather than internal U.S. policies or problems, a Los Angeles Times Poll found.

Concern about imports is so strong that more Americans now say that foreign trade hurts the country rather than helps it. Three out of four surveyed described as a "serious problem" the United States' new status as a debtor nation--one that owes more to foreigners than they owe to it. These respondents blamed cheap labor abroad for the success of foreign goods in American markets.

Trade Confrontation

A bill to reduce textile imports--expected to go to the floor of the House within the next several days--was supported by 51% of those surveyed compared to 37% against. The remainder of those questioned were either unsure how they felt or refused to respond. The vote on the bill will be the first major trade confrontation between Congress and the Administration.

Generally, the responses of those surveyed revealed a sense of confusion and frustration over how to resolve the trade imbalance. They were uncertain, for example, whether foreign countries would retaliate if the United States restricted foreign imports. And they believe that a strong dollar is good for the country despite their concern about the trade imbalance.

The telephone poll surveyed 1,967 people across the country over six days, ending Thursday. Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis said the survey has a 3% sampling error, which means that responses might vary by 3% in either direction if every American were polled.

The poll was taken at a time when Congress is grappling with legislation--strongly opposed by President Reagan--to curb imports. Of those who are aware of Reagan's trade policies, 50% oppose them and 34% approve them. A substantial number, however, were unaware of the President's policies on the issue.

"This shows that the American public is in favor of the hullabaloo in Congress, and they're in favor of trade restrictions," Lewis said. "People are not sure what is going on here, but they're upset about it. It's clear to them what ought to be done: We ought to retaliate."

When asked whether the United States should restrict imports to protect jobs or disavow trade barriers in favor of providing consumers with wide choices and lower prices, respondents favored restrictions by more than 2 to 1. That response was virtually unchanged from a Times poll taken in May, 1983.

Smaller Margins

Those surveyed supported specific legislation to curb imports by much smaller margins, however, and narrowly opposed a bill that would impose a 25% surcharge on a wide variety of imports, including television sets.

"People don't readily make the connection that prices are going to go up with quotas," said William Schneider, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and The Times' political analyst. "You get a very positive response to enacting quotas, but you get a more negative response when you relate the quota to specific price increases."

The survey showed that a political candidate who favors trade barriers will not be hurt by that position. When asked whether they would be more or less likely to support a candidate who favors trade barriers, 43% said they would be more likely, compared to 38% who said they would be less inclined.

Farm, Business Support

Congressional efforts to curb imports began when senators and representatives returned to Washington after spending the August recess in their districts. Congressmen said they heard strong sentiment in favor of protectionism, not only from workers but also from business leaders and farmers, who in the past had strongly opposed interference in the free market.

The Times survey found that the more educated the respondent, the less likely he or she was to support import restrictions. Nevertheless, substantial opposition to restrictions was found only among those who said they had a postgraduate education. Within that group, 47% opposed trade barriers to protect jobs and 45% favored them.

The poll found also that people who own Japanese cars tend to support restrictions less than those own American cars. Of the entire sample surveyed, 67% said they own American cars while 19% own foreign cars.

Americans are more likely to blame the trade gap on the actions of foreign countries than on domestic policies or problems within American industry. Following cheap foreign labor, the most often cited explanation for the imbalance was a tendency of foreign governments to sell goods more cheaply abroad than at home, a practice known as "dumping."

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