Congress may be about to kill the goose that some lawmakers are counting on to lay a double golden egg this November -- a combination tax cut and balanced budget, timed to arrive just before the general election.
In hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee, the lawmakers have indicated they well may roll back the new oil-import fee that President Carter imposed as part of his March 14 anti-inflation package.
This past week they also voiced vigorous opposition to another Carter revenue-raising proposal -- a measure that would require banks and corporations to withhold federal income taxes from interest and dividends they pay.
It's easy enough to see what's behin d the lawmakers' reactions: The oil import fee will raise gasoline prices beginnning May 15, while the withholding plan would force some investors to pay more in taxes.
Congress' reluctance to tolerate either of these steps has been well documented in past sessions. No politician will sit still for this kind of action -- particularly with an election looming.
Ironically, however, the lawmakers may be depriving themselves of an even bigger vote-getter this coming November -- the chance to fulfill their promise to balance the budget and provide a tax cut to boot.
For all his high-minded rhetoric, Carter proposed the oil-import fee and tax-withholding plans primarily as a budget-balancing move -- to reduce the amount of spending cuts that would be needed to ward off a budget deficit.
The House and Senate budget committees hve taken both proposals into account in preparing their own fiscal 1981 budget resolutions now being considered in floor action.
Without the $3.4 billion in new revenues from the president's tax-withholding plan, neither the administration nor Congress would be able to balance the budget -- even under the most optimistic outlook.
And a rollback of the oil-import fee would eliminate the $10.3 billion contingency fund that both the president and congressional leaders want to set aside for a productivity tax cut early in 1981.
If the two houses reject both these revenue-raising proposals, Congress either will have to cut domestic programs far more sharply than it now seems prepared to or else simply forego both the budget balancing and the tax cut.
Overturning both proposals would increase the deficit by a minimum of $13.7 billion. If the economy slips into a more severe recession, as now is expected, the red-ink figure could be even larger.
What puzzles many analysts about the current opposition is that, for all the talk about the "adverse" impact of both these proposals, the consequences for taxpayers actually are relatively mild.
Carter's imposition of the oil-import fee, for example, is expected to boost gasoline prices 10 cents a gallon. But that's only a fraction of the amount by which they've risen in recent months, and the hike would help cut consumption, too.
New England lawmakers have been voicing alarm that the price rise will push heating oil prices higher. But the system is designed to confine the rise specifically to gasoline prices. And experts say any spillover is apt to be small.
Finally, there's much to be said for any move to raise energy prices further, if only to spur more conservation. It's pretty conclusive now that price increases do more than anything to prod Americans to cut back on fuel comsumption.
On the proposal to require withholding of taxes on interest and dividends, the issue seems even more clear-cut: It's mainly a matter of cracking down on tax evaders. No actual tax hike is involved.
A 1976 study by the Treasury estimated that investors failed to report some $16 billion in interest and dividend income, thereby escaping some $3.4 billion in taxes. Some people cheat intentionally. Others simply forget to put it down.
The government has tried requiring banks and corporations to report the interest and dividends they pay so the Internal Revenue Service can match them with taxpayers' returns, but the process is cumbersome and costly.
Treasury Secretary G. William Miller testified the other day that to follow up on existing leads would require "millions of telephone calls, letters and visits" and would "inevitably be regarded as harassment."
IRS officials say merely requiring banks and businesses to withhold a specified tax payment from dividends and interest -- as now is done in the case of wages and salaries -- would be simpler and far more effective.
The stumbling block has been the banks and financial institutions, who complain the move would overburden them administratively and crimp needed savings and investment.
But industry analysts concede privately that with modern computerized record-keeping, the withholding plan wouldn't be that much of a problem after all.
And the issue of the impact on investment is a thin one. Analysts say it's one thing to argue over whether savings interest and investment should be taxed altogether: A growing body of economist believe they should be exempt.
But if the law now provides for taxing these forms of income, why should investors be allowed to escape taxes, while wage-earners are subject to withholding? The equity isn't there.
Admittedly, Carter's two revenue-raising proposals are intended essentially as budget-balancing ploys, and not maily as energy-conservation and tax-enforcement measures as the administration has tried to portray them.
And there's no doubt the lawmakers ought to be weighing their consequences.
But to many analysts, adding 10 cents to gasoline prices and forcing investors to pay taxes they already owe on interest and dividends are small prices for the larger goals of budget-balancing and a possible tax cut.
By bowing to short-range political considerations, the lawmakers could be doing more to bust the fiscal 1981 budget and deprive voters of a tax cut this fall.
And that could spark an angrier reaction from voters than the extra 10 cents a gallon or the few dollars more in withholding taxes ever would bring -- with far graver implications for the economy as well.