The Carter administration has hit another turning point in its fast-changing economic policy: the realization that it needs to beef up its anti-inflation program again to cope with the worsening wage-price spiral.
Although strategists warn no new announcements are imminent, policymakers effectively have decided the present program isn't working and they're going to have to do something more to combat inflation.
A subcabinet-level task force is exploring possible initiatives that range from using the tax-system to penalize excessive wage or price increases to setting informal guidelines for specific industries.
The question is, how far can planners go without running into trouble with Congress and organized labor - or frightening the business community into thinking they're heading toward wage-price controls?
Among the measures under consideration:
A new "sectoral approach" that in effect would set specific wage-price goals in individual industries and then pressure business and labor leaders to take steps - voluntarily - to meet them.
Although this could involve voluntary industry wage-price targets, supporters contend it needn't go that far. Policymakers haven't made any decisions yet, but some feel this plan is the most likely to be adopted.
An effort to enlist labor in a new "social contract" in which the administration would allow largersized first-year wage boosts in return for worker "protection" schemes such as shorter contracts and cost-of-living clauses that would moderate later-year increases if inflation slows.
Revival of a plan by Federal Reserve Board member Henry Wallich using tax penalties to prod businesses and unions to hold down wage and price increases.
(The administration rejected the Wallich proposal last January, along with a rival plan that would add tax incentives as a reward for good behavior, but policymakers are re-examing it as an outside possibility.)
Possible use of open threats if industry and labor don't cooperate. For example, the administration could warn it will seek to deregulate the trucking industry if the companies and unions don't hold down wage-price rises.
Deferral of the minimum wage and payroll tax increases now scheduled to take effect next January. Federal Reserve Chairman G. William Miller has estimated that this delay would trim inflation by 0.5 percent. Others agree.
Voluntary economywide guidelines. Arthur Okun, former Johnson administration economist, last week urged Carter to call on Americans to hold wage increases to 6.5 percent voluntarily and later to set price guidelines, too.
And Miller has suggested the administration call in big firms and work jointly to develop industry-by-industry guidelines that the corporations would pledge to follow.
The search for a new program stems from policymakers' concern over the inflation rate for the past six months, which has exceeded all expectations, even those of the more pessimistic forecasters.
The administration had predicted a 7 percent rise, but consumer prices actually have accelerated at a 10.4 percent pace so far this year - setting off fears by voters that the nation again is stuck in another round of double-digit inflation.
Adminstration policymakers - and private economists, both Democrats and Republicans - agree that double-digit inflation is not here to stay. Food prices already have begun to moderate, and more relief is predicted.
But even White House officials concede that the inflation rate in the second half of this year is certain to be far higher than policymakers had expected - more in the 7 to 8 percent range than the 6 percent range forecast before.
Nor is there much relief in sight for 1979. Alan Greenspan, former President Ford's chief economic adviser, predicts an 8 percent inflation rate next year, with wage increases accelerating to just below 10 percent.
The administration's big fear is that unless it acts quickly to try to drive the inflation rate down further, the Federal Reserve Board will continue raising interest reates - a move they say is likely to bring on a recession.
Coincidentally, the heavy round of 1979 wage bargaining will begin in about six months as well - intensifying pressure on the administration to have a program that is palatable to labor by Jan. 1.
Policymakers say that for obvious political reasons, they don't want to throw out the recently installed anti-inflation program - only "intensify" it to make it more effective. Officials say any changes will be relatively minor.
The difficulty is that no matter which of the current options it chooses, the administration still faces formidable obstacles both with Congress and labor. In both cases, the Problems are enough to give officials pause.
The search for a new anti-inflation policy effectively is an acknowledgement by the administrationthat its present program hasn't been a success.
Carter's new anti-inflation czar, Robert Strauss, has won "pledges" of compliance from dozens of big corporations - primarily in steel, aluminum and autos - but the move has been mainly a public relations effort.
Moreover, almost all sides concede that Strauss still has been unable to get at the nub of the problem - how to convince labor to cooperate in holding down wage increases.
Average hourly earnings have risen 8.2 percent from their level of a year ago - a pace economists say is almost certain to drive up business costs more sharply and send prices surging further.
Yet, the administration essentially has no mechanism in place for securing labor's cooperation in moderating those wage increases. White House efforts in the rail and postal settlements have produced little to brag about.
Moreover, the outlook for the rest of the year isn't encouraging:
Although food prices - which caused most of the rise so far this year - are moderating, policymakers admit privately they're unlikely to stay within the 10 percent for the year now forecast by the Agriculture Department.
While industrial prices haven't accelerated much this year, neither have they shown any of the "deceleration" the president hopes for. Instead, analysts say they are likely to continue increasing at their present 6 percent pace, and perhaps speed up a little next year.
Nor do wage prospects seem very bright. Last quarter's hefty wage boosts may not set the pattern for the next few months, but the inflation will bloat cost-of-living increases for workers, further raising labor costs.
Finally, to cap it all off, productivity - the measure of worker output per hour on the job - is low and is continuing to fall, intensifying the impact of wage increases.
When productivity rises sharply, businesses can absorb higher wage boosts without having to raise prices. But when it doesn't, labor costs exacerbate inflation. Analysts had hoped to see a rebound in productivity, but so far none has come.
Admittedly, the administration already has taken some new anti-inflation actions - mostly in tightening its budget policy from the somewhat more expansive posture of last January.
James McIntyre, Carter's budget director, last week urged Congress to trim fiscal 1979 spending by $5 billion, primarily as an anti-inflation move, a call the House Budget Committee endorsed last week. And Carter has approved relatively tight budget lids for the next two years.
But policymakers generally agree that more action is needed, both in stiffening the anti-inflation program and in intensifying other new efforts, such as reducing the cost of complying with government regulations.
The dilemma is how to get there from here without becoming snagged in fights with Congress or organized labor.
To the administration, by far the biggest immediate threat is Congress - specifically what the lawmkers would do to any new measures the White House sent up. All the new options would require new legislation.
Policymakers bitterly recall the law-makers' balking on regulatory reform and the administration's hospital cost-control bills. Say one: "The No. 1 argument raised against anything is it would require legislation."
Right behind that is the administration's stony relationship with organized labor. The White House had little clout as it was with the AFL-CIO, but the recent defeat of the labor law reform bill has eroded that further.
To add to officials' worries, Douglas Fraser, spokesman for the more moderate United Auto Worker's union, last month stalked off the high-level Labor-Management group - ruling that out as a possible bargaining forum.
In this light, Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, who has kept close to labor since his Johnson administration days, recently has talked with Carter about a possible side role in the White House-labor area.
Another problem is that the proposals the task force is reviewing have serious technical barriers. Officials say the Wallich tax-penalty plan, for example, could raise serious administrative difficulties for the Internal Revenue Service.
Finally, there's apprehension about raising businessmen's fears of possible mandatory wage-price controls - a development some say could lead to anticipatory price increases and a slump in major investment.
Although policymakers insist they're not even contemplating any such move, they acknowledge that businessmen still fear possible controls and that their apprehensions pose a problem.
Where it all will lead is difficult to predict right now. Administration officials say the planning isn't really far along enough yet to provide any clues where policymakers ultimately will come out.
But the realization has set in among key administration officials that the present program, at least as it stands, simply isn't good enough, and that major changes are necessary.
As Okun puts it, "if we don't have an anti-inflation program, the recession will be the anti-inflation program - and nobody wants to see that happen."