The new House ad hoc committee to produce a coherent energy policy has little legislative power, so its success will depend in large measure on the harmonizing talents of its chairman, Rep. Thomas Ludlow Ashley (D-Ohio).
Rarely does an issue come to Congress that so sharply pits the interests of regions and parts of society against each other. The reputation of President Carter, Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., and the 95th Congress ride on the outcome.
O'Neill said he picked Ashley to try to find a rational solution to the energy problem because "he is an able, talented legislator who has never been involved in energy legislation and is not on one side or the other."
The ad hoc committee held its organizational meeting yesterday and accepted an invitation from Carter to meet with him at the White House next Wednesday morning for a one-hour discussion of his energy program. Ashley had invited Carter to be leadoff witness at a series of hearings the committee will conduct on energy goals, but the President declined.
Ashley, 54, little-known congressman from Toledo for 22 years, meets several political needs for the job. He is generally regarded by his colleagues as bright and an effective legislator as the House's leading specialist on housing.
Ideologically, he stands near the center. He is a northern urban congressman who has a strong pro-labor voting record but is also acceptable to business, and is in fact considered an ally of the banking community on the House Banking Committee, where he is the second-ranking Democrat.
With his seniority, Ashley can talk on an equal footing with the five committee chairmen who will serve on his committee. A boxing champ in prep school, he's a tough-looking, gravelly voiced fellow who colleagues say is a forceful presiding officer.
Ashley had a fleeting bit of fame during the Nixon impeachment inquiry of 1974 when it was discovered that his great-grandfather, a Republican congressman from Toledo, had introduced the resolution to impeach President Andrew Johnson more than a century before.
A year earlier Ashley got his name in the papers for spending a weekend in an Ohio jail after pleading no contest to a charge of being in control of an auto while intoxicated. Ashley says he doesn't drink at work, and none of his colleagues suggested a drinking problem. Ashley's 71 per cent election total in 1972 dropped to 52 per cent in 1974, but climbed to 54 per cent last year.
Ashley was born to a family of moderate means which borrowed money to send him East to prep school and Yale. He studied law for 2 1/2 years at night school, practiced briefly and was elected to the House in 1954 with the backing of Mike DiSalle, former Toledo mayor, Ohio governor and Korean War federal wage-price stabilizer.
In the House, Ashley has been hard to label. In 1961 he was one of only six members who voted to abolish the House unamerican Activities Committee, a difficult civil-liberties vote.
The largest labor union in Ashley's district is the United Auto Workers. They were opposed to the gasoline tax increase that the House Ways and Means Committee wrote into an energy bill two years ago, yet Ashley - along with 71 other House members - voted to keep the 20-cents-a-gallon tax in the bill. He said yesterday he decided the alternatives were the tax increase or rationing, and he preferred the former.
Although many members consider Ashley to have been a good friend of bankers over the years, Ashley rejects this, saying he only seemed so in contrast to the anti-bank views of the Banking Committee's late chairman, Wright patman of Texas.
"I disagreed with his populist views," said Ashley in an interview. "You can't mandate low interest rates. It's a matter of supply and demand.I'm cautious on direct credit allocation. I have been opposed to efforts by Patman and some of his associates to weaken the independence of the Federal Reserve Board."
Figures compiled by the public affairs lobby Common Cause show that in last year's re-election campaign, Ashley received $45,772 from labor and $29,465 from business and professional groups. He is listed by labor's COPE as having a 91 per cent pro-labor voting record and by Congressional Quarterly as having a party unity rating of 78 per cent of the time.
Two years ago, despite his role as the leading housing specialist, in the house, Ashley found himself isolated from most Democrats on the fight over a veto by President Ford. The House had passed an emergency bill to prevent mortgage foreclosures against homeowners unemployed by the recession. The Senate added what Ashley considered "special interest provisions." He refused to sign the conference report, supported Ford's veto and then helped work out a quick compromise with the Republican administration. Some democrats denounced his role, but Ashley said the final bill was what House Democrats originally wanted.
Ashley chaired the subcommittee that wrote legislation to bail out near-bankrupt New York City two years ago, and was given high marks by colleagues for mastering a complex subject quickly. As it turned out, Ashley's bill was junked when New Yorkers made a deal with the GOP administration to accept a less generous bill as the price for its support.
Rep. John Rousselot (R-Calif.), former official of the right-wing John Birch Society who serves on Ashley's Housing subcommittee, called Ashley "a bright mind a tough centrist" who can carry a committee majority with him.
Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), a senior liberal and leadership adviser said Ashley is "very bright and, when he applies himself, very effective."