As the Departments of Commerce and Defense continue to snipe at each other over the reach and scope of export controls, Congress may take matters into its own hands. The Democratic House of Representatives recently passed the Export Enhancement Act, part of an omnibus trade bill, which calls for a 40% reduction over the next three years in the list of items, mostly high-tech equipment, that requires export licenses from the Commerce Department. The bill also instructs the Commerce Department to use more liberal criteria in determining whether a controlled product is openly available from other foreign suppliers, thereby eliminating the need for manufacturers to obtain a U.S. export license.

The House proposal was authored by Washington congressman Donald Bonker, chairman of the House Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade. It now faces opposition in the Republican Senate, where the Administration hopes to block any action. The Commerce Department argues, somewhat benignly, that improvements in the export licensing process already under way make legislation premature. The Defense Department takes a more aggressive posture. "The Export Debasement Act is what I would call it," says Stephen D. Bryen, deputy undersecretary of Defense. "We call it the Gorbachev Relief Bill around here. It would totally destroy the enforcement system and just make a horrible mess of things. . . . It would definitely mean that there would be a tremendous leakage to the Russians. It's very irresponsible. We think it's a terrible thing."

Bonker says he has heard it all before. "Those are rhetorical charges that cannot be supported. . . . There are zealots within the Department of Defense who have little sensitivity to our growing trade deficit and to our competitive position in world economies. There is an almost pathological commitment to restrict the export of technology whether or not it's militarily significant."