When two high-level administration lobbyists called on an influential member of the House Ways and Means Committee last week, the legislator was surprised to find they hadn't come to discuss President Carter's proposal for a new windfall profits tax on oil companies.
Although the lawmaker had said he'd support a windfall profits tax-and even asked for more details about it-the lobbyists insisted they were there to discuss other matters. Their agenda: minor measures to tighten tax treatment of some taxpayers.
Almost unbelievably the lawmaker was told there was nothing to talk about on the windfall profits tax proposal. Carter did not want to get into any details about the measure, the lobbyists said, because he did not want to become embroiled in a fight over them. Better to let Congress come up with its own.
The incident is a telling one because it raises a serious question about Carter's new energy proposal: Now that the White House seems to have widespread popular support for a windfall profits tax, will it once again muff the chance to get it passed?
The question comes to mind because of the administration's sorry track record on other major legislation-the "tax reform" package that Carter proposed in 1978, the crude oil equalization tax last year and last January's "real wage insurance" tax credit, just to name a few.
The real wage insurance proposal, billed as a touchstone of Carter's new wage-price guidelines program, was killed by the House Budget Committee last week, in large part because White House lobbyists simply fumbled trying to keep up with the committee's deliberations.
And, in another such incident only one day later, White House lobbyists stood by and watched as the budget panel knocked out money for Carter's long-overdue urban aid package - only minutes before the president finally sent a proposal to the Hill. (the funds were restored the next day.)
That same sort of bumbling has accompanied other White House efforts over the past two-and-a-half years:
In a key fight over capital gains taxes last year, the White House high-mindedly refused to propose any compromise in the House Ways and Means Committee on grounds that it didn't want to "interfere" in the panel's deliberations. The result: Carter lost by default. The lawmaker swamped him.
In the battle over "real wage insurance" earlier this year, Carter again remained aloof from the fray, refusing to get on the phone and push the proposal despite its visibility as a key part of his new wage-price program. Within a few weeks, the measure had lost all its momentum.
Even in the fight over more minor "tax reform" measures, the administration's lobbying efforts have been a comedy of errors. The White House had several opportunities to push its position in recent months, but so far has taken none of them. The administration seems destined to lose again.
To be sure, Carter was facing strong cross-currents when he floated these proposals. The 1978 "tax reform" package was unpopular even before it went to Congress, and the wage insurance plan was opposed by big labor. It also was flawed technically, and was costly to boot.
But this time, the president is riding the crest of the wave. While some key congressional figures expectedly oppose the windfall profits tax plan, a majority of lawmakers appears to be sympathetic toward it. Polls show the public favors a windfall profits tax. And even many businessmen believe it is right.
Longtime Capitol Hill observers say this time the chances are good that the president will be able to push the measure through. All he has to do, they say, is latch onto the momentum and push hard to build congressional and public support for the package. The committee chairmen will follow.
Yet, incredibly, the White House appears to be making no real effort to drum up support among the lawmakers. While Carter was proclaiming on television that "it's clear the people demand" a windfall profits tax and "I'm. . .confident that we can get it," his lobbyists were changing the subject.
In the case of the Ways and Means Committee member earlier this week, all the lawmaker wanted was some quiet guidance on what kind of profits tax the president as seeking. The implication was that at the least he might support it. Perhaps he even would help lead the fight.
Instead, the administration's lobbyists came prepared only to discuss two relatively minor tax matters that may be burning issues to a few tax lawyers and would-be "reformers" but have little real meaning to the broad masses of American voters. The question of the windfall profits tax was left to sour.
(In part because of snafus by Energy Department analysts, the White House wasn't able to work out the nuts and bolts of its windfall profits tax proposal by the time Carter announced it last week. However, enough details were known a few days ago to give the congressman his answer.)
When Carter proposed his windfall profits tax last week, some White House insiders were grousing, correctly, that the president was "getting a bad rap" on the measure. The adverse reaction was not as deep as the headlines would imply, these aides asserted. Actually, the plan may just pass.
But that may prove accurate ultimately only if the White House doesn't bungle its lobbying efforts again. Capitol Hill observers say there still is the distinct possibility that the profits tax may become bogged down again unless Carter gets his act together.
And that means supporting those on the Hill who express interest in the plan - not leaving them to hoof it on their own.