THE HOUSE of Representatives voted on Friday against gasoline lines. Confronted once again with that familiar and unpleasant choice, the House voted this time to decontrol gasoline. The vote said that if another shortage comes the country will be better off bearing the impact in the form of higher prices than enduring gasoline lines again. That decision is certainly the right one, but it is more than that. Perhaps, as Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) suggested, it will mark the beginning of an American consensus on a rational energy policy.
True, the motion carried narrowly -- 191 to 188 votes -- and since the bill is still on the floor it could be reversed. But it followed Thursday's crucial votes, by very wide margins, to support President Carter's plan to decontrol oil, and not to reimpose controls on heating oil.
Clearly, there has been a crucial shift of opinion in the House. Part of the explanation may be that congressmen -- not to mention their constituents -- have had time to think about the lessons of last spring's unhappy experiences at the filling station. Beyond the inordinate waste of time, and the anxieties, it was deomnstrated that controls require federal allocation rules. By June everyone could see that the federal rules were making the shortages worse and the lines longer.
More congressmen have come to believe that higher prices are necessary to enforce conservation. In regard to gasoline, there's been a dramatic example of it since the lines ended. Prices are up sharply -- despite the controls -- and consumption has been running well below last year's level. That in turn is beginning to reduce this country's oil imports significantly.
Most congressmen are also persuaded that price decontrol is necessary to bring alternative energy sources onto the market. A vote to let oil prices rise is a vote for the smoothest and most effective way of bringing solar energy into widespread use. And most congressmen are deeply concerned, as well they might be, about the decline of the dollar. They have repeatedly seen the force with which American expenditures on imported oil, at rapidly rising prices, have hurt the dollar on the world's exchange.
With decontrol, another shortage might mean severe increases in gasoline and fuel oil prices. What about the impact on poor people? The way to help them is to provide fuel stamps. Gasoline is hardly more important than food, but this country doesn't try to control food prices. It lets them rise and, for those who can't cope, provides food stamps.
The long struggle over oil price controls has been an exceedingly expensive distraction. If that struggle is now ending, six years after the first oil crisis began, that is cause for rejoining. Decontrol will cost consumers something. But they will be getting their money's worth. They will begin buying their way out of a fearful dependence on the increasingly unstable politics of the Persian Gulf.