Congress is on the verge of passing new legislation that would force the administration to liberalize its current price guidelines substantially while at the same time prohibiting any boost in its wage standard for workers.
The action came in House acceptance on Wednesday of an amendment in a Senate-passed bill that would alter the administration's present formula for computing the basic wage and price standards.
Final passage of the measure was postponed -- at least until the coming lame-duck session -- when White House advisers prevailed on House leaders to hold the bill at the desk rather than return it to the Senate for enactment.
However, it's not entirely clear whether the administration will have much chance of getting the proposal stricken from the bill. The guidelines program is not popular on Capitol Hill. And business is expected to lobby vigorously.
The provision, drafted by Sen. John Heinz 3d (R-Pa.), was tacked onto the Senate version of a bill renewing the authorization for the Council on Wage and Price Stability, the agency that oversees the wage-price guidelines program.
Although the proposal slipped by unnoticed, officials have complained to Congress it could raise the council's price guidline by as much as 1 percentage point over current standards -- without a comparable boost in the wage guide.
Present guidelines call on companies to hold their 1980 price boosts to the average for all rises posted during 1976 and 1977. The wage standard limits pay boosts to between 7.5 percent and 9.5 percent this year.
The White House also has expressed concern over a second Senate amendment -- this one revoking the president's authority to impose credit controls throughout the economy, as Carter did briefly last March 14.
The original Senate bill called for repealing the controls authority in June of 1981, but the House added new language extending them to mid-1982 instead -- ostensibly giving the two chambers more time to debate the issue.
Carter's decision to impose controls last March stirred considerable controversy among conservatives, who have contended all along that the law gives the president powers that are far too sweeping.
The restraints Carter ordered imposed in March were lifted promptly by the Federal Reserve Board, and the program was fully dismantled by mid-July -- far ahead of what most observers believe would be the case.
The amendment the White House says would liberalize the price standard involves a congressionally mandated change in the way the guideline is computed by the administration.
Under current procedures, the council calculates its price standard by taking the wage increases it wants to permit and offsetting it by productivity boosts. The productivity figure the agency uses is the average for the 1960s. b
Under the new Heinz provision, however, the council would be required to use more recent productivity figures, which are far less ebullient and would allow businesses much larger average price hikes.
For a variety of reasons, the productivity index -- which measures the increase in average output per work hour -- has been stagnant in the past few years and actually has declined in recent months.
Analysts say while the Heinz approach may seem innocuous in economic terms, it would present a thorny political problem for the administration. Organized labor, already sour on the wage-price program, almost certainly would balk.
The White House already has run into trouble with union leaders this year over the guidelines program. Officials recently agreed to postpone a scheduled tightening of the wage-price standards to avert a possible pre-election flap.
With postponement of Wednesday's legislation, the wage-price council technically now is operating under the broad continuing resolution Congress passed just before the Senate recessed. That runs through Dec. 15.
If the current dipuste over the two Senate amendments is not resolved during the coming lame-duck session, the wage-price agency may be out of business before the start of the next administration.