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The Toughest Trader of Them All : In Showdowns With the Japanese and Pushy Congressmen, Carla Hills Is All Business

September 03, 1989|ART PINE | Art Pine is a correspondent in The Times' Washington bureau.

THE SENATE FINANCE Committee is about 20 minutes into another of its frequent oversight hearings on how tough the Bush Administration intends to be on foreign trade, and Republican Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon, a boyish-looking man with an occasionally petulant demeanor, is bearing down on the morning's witness. Sounding almost like a prosecutor, Packwood implies that the White House has abandoned its once-tough position calling on Europe to phase out the subsidies it gives to farmers. Packwood demands to know, chapter and verse, exactly how the Administration plans to negotiate the issue.

Like any good negotiator or poker player, the new U.S. Trade Representative, Carla A. Hills, is not eager to lay out her strategy before she gets to the table. It seems understandable that she might like to lean forward to meet Packwood directly, then blurt out something like, "Aw, c'mon, senator--get off my case,"--which the posturing Sen. Packwood might well deserve. But Hills is new to the job, and most novices don't take on senior senators such as Packwood so soon. So it surprises everyone when she does . "You know, it does not help the negotiations for me to sit here and say what our specific strategy is," Hills points out quietly, but firmly. After all, she adds: "This is a negotiation ."

The riposte is so effective that committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, an experienced politician who knows when to call a halt to things, does so judiciously. "Hang tough, Madam!" he admonishes her, in an unconscious mixture of machismo and Southern courtliness. Then, with a side glance at Packwood, he breaks into a sheepish smile: "--and I think you will !" he says, setting off appreciative chuckles in the audience.

For Carla Anderson Hills, winning over another lawmaker this morning is a small step toward meeting what may be her most formidable challenge: surviving and surmounting the many forces trying to shape U.S. trade policy. In her seven months as United States Trade Representative, Hills has combined the steely self-confidence she showed Packwood with a meticulous attention to detail and held her own against antagonists ranging from Congress to the Japanese. A former Los Angeles socialite, captain of the Stanford women's tennis team, assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, head of the Justice Department's civil division and third woman in history to serve as a member of a President's Cabinet--as head of Housing and Urban Development under Ford--Hills, at 55, effectively is the nation's trade minister. She's responsible for formulating the Administration's trade policy and for negotiating with foreign countries.

It's not glamorous, and the details may be wearying, but Hills' work has a major effect on industries and jobs across the country. The more Hills can open markets for U.S. goods and reduce unfair competition resulting from government subsidies to foreign industries, the more jobs she will create or save at home, and the lower prices will be here and abroad. European countries, for example, are underwriting their farmers directly and that, the United States contends, encourages them to produce more and enables them to sell their huge surpluses at discounts that underprice American goods.

To be successful, Hills must satisfy both a President who wants to follow a trade policy that is pragmatic and open, and the more-militant members of Congress. In addition, Hills' agency--USTR, as it's known--must serve as "an honest broker" among the other parties that historically have a say in setting the nation's trade policy: The treasury, state and commerce departments, Office of Management and Budget, labor and private industry.

Although most voters are oblivious to the trade issue, it has become a virtual obsession in Washington--particularly among Democrats, who see protectionism as a sure-fire vote-getter. Largely on momentum generated on Capitol Hill, the lawmakers passed a massive trade bill last year that imposed such heavy requirements on Hills' office that they left her little room to maneuver in dealing with other countries. This year, they are nearly rabid about the need to "get tough" with Japan, and they are pressuring Hills to do it.

In all these arenas, Hills has proven that she can win her adversaries' respect. Although she came into the job with only a minimal exposure to trade issues, Hills has been relatively successful in finding the hearts, if not the minds, of lawmakers. She testified on Capitol Hill no fewer than 12 times during her first few months in office--unusual for a Cabinet member even at the start of an Administration. Bowing to Congress' wishes, she has publicly cited Japan for alleged unfair trading practices. She has made lawmakers feel that she is on their side in internal debates over trade policy. And, perhaps above all, her businesslike, almost-courtroom manner has given her an assertive image that sells well on Capitol Hill.

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