ABOUT TWO WEEKS AGO, 32 congressmen introduced House Concurrent Resolution 290 expressing "the sense of the Congress that the Secretary of Energy should not promulgate any Federal emergency energy conservation plan which would harm recreational boating." They're not talking, mind you, about any ordinary, everday energy conservation plan, but about an emergency plan.
This kind of thinking is neither new nor exceptional, so perhaps we do Rep. Ronald Mottl and his cosponsors a disservice in singling it out. But it does serve to illustrate the sorry fact that for the past six years -- while the nation's energy status has steadily worsened -- narrow, special interests have, with only a few exceptions, managed to block the passage of conservation programs.
Conservation measures that will eliminate large amount of energy use require institutional changes -- changes in the numberless rules and regulations of an economy still geared to oil at $3 a barrel. While such changes generally cost much less than new production facilities, and are usually not painful to the general public, they do force readjustments in business-as-usual for individual interest groups. These groups make their feelings known on the Hill, and in the absence of a pro-conservation lobby, nine times out of 10, that is that. Appropriating $20 billion for a synthetic fuels program may be expensive, but politically it is cheap. Working out ways to save energy -- for example, by enabling utilities to finance home-insulation programs -- does not cost anything, but politically it is expensive.
Perhaps the government's new-found determination to stop runaway inflation will provide a new impetus to these badly needed programs. The connection between the two is that, when productivity goes up, inflation comes down, and the right kind of conservation programs increase productivity by creating more production per unit of energy used.
The truth that a majority of Congress still has not had the courage to face is that new energy realities demand fundamental and wide-ranging changes in economic institutions created to run on cheap energy. The longer those changes are put off, the more painful the eventual transition will be. They have already been delayed so long that some of our accustomed luxuries -- we have in mind, for example, recreational boating -- will probably have to endure at least a temporary pinch. To avoid eventual cuts in the necessities Congress will have to stop listening quite so closely to the voice of the energy special interests and focus its attention on the larger public interest.