AS THE CONGRESSMEN trooped out of the briefings yesterday on the President's energy program, they agreed, apprehensively, that it would be "controversial." A truer word was never spoken. Sen. Howard Baker has already pledged undying hostility to the gasoline tax. He claims to see in it another attempt by the bloated East to fasten its hegemony on the sturdy motor-driven yeoman of rural Tennessee. Members from oil states deplored the inadequate emphasis, they said, on increased domestic oil production. Meanwhile, the members from the automobile states deplorted the excessive emphasis, they said, on automobiles. It was a busy day - and, remember, the legislative details won't begin to appear until the President speaks to Congress tonight.
POil imports are currently just over half of our national oil supply. Depending on 9 million barrels a day of other people's oil is hazardous to your economic health. That huge volume, and the prospect of continous increases, maintains a tight seller's market for OPRC.
Some Americans, including some in Congress, seem to have the idea that OPEC's current price, around $13 a barrel, somehow reaches the limit of possibility. On the contrary, OPEC could raise it to $20 tomorrow and as a matter of economics, the United States couldn't do anything but to keep buying and keep crying. If the Arabs wanted to use the oil weapon again and cut off sales altogether, the whole industrial world would be thrown into choas - again. This country and the countries of Europe have been pouring armaments into the Persian Gulf region to pay for oil. If somebody ever begins to use those weapons, it wouldn't take much of a war to close the Gulf completely to oil tankers.
For people in politics, it's an awful position to be in. If Mr. Carter and Congress put through all these severe and unwelcome measures to reduce our oil imports, maybe the country can avoid the dire possibilities of embargo and extortionate procing. But then no congressman could ever prove to his constituents that this insurance policy had been necessary. It's like taking a flu shot. You always remember the sore arm, but never the case of flu that you didn't get. Nobody can count the people who didn't die in the epidemic that didn't happen. Nobody can reckon the cost of an oil shortage that wise public policy prevented.
It's Congress' job to challenge and test each line of the president's energy program. As the President himself candidly observed, it's a complex structure, and there's something in it for everybody to hate. But for Congress and everyone else, in the end the question isn't whether you like it all down to the last nut and bolt. It's whether you can think of any better answer to a danger that is, unfortunately, a real one.