The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee voted 17 to 0 yesterday to create a Department of Energy after adopting a compromise on the procedure for setting oil and natural gas prices.
Like a similar measure approved by the House Government Operations Committee last week, the Senate bill would pull together scattered energy functions of government into one Cabinet-level department ot be headed by James R. Schlesinger Jr., now energy adviser to President Carter. Such agencies as the Federal Energy Administration, Energy Research and Development Administration and the Federal Power Commission would disppear, their functions absorbed by the new department.
A major dispute between the administration and the Senate committee, which delayed action on the bill by a week, was whether the FPC's power to set the wellhead price of natural gas should be given to the new secretary as requested by the President.
Committee Chairman Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and other members protested that this would place too much power in one person insisted that authority to set prices be vested in an independent regulatory board within the department.
The final decision was to give the decision-making power to a three-member board subject to a presidential veto. This is the same procedure by which the Civil Aeronautics Board acts on international air routes. The secretary could make proposals to the board and require that it act within a specified period.
Several members complained that this formula provide no "finality" of action. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) called it "adjudicatory Ping Pong" because the issue could bounce back and forth from board decision to presidential veto without end. But Jackson said there is no easy solution to this type of issue and joined a majority in agreeing to the Ribicoff compromise after several alternatives were rejected.
A proposal by Sen. William V. Roth (R-Del.) to let the President, if he disagrees with the board's decision, decide the case rather than simply veto the decision, was rejected 9 to 7. Some attorneys saw a constitutional problem, because it might be nonreviewable in court and thus deprive concumers of due process.
Also rejected was a proposal to go back to the President's original plan to give the power to the secretary, and another to make the board's second decision, after a presidential veto and resubmission, final, subject to court review.
The regulatory board would take over the FPC's power to set natural gasprices as wll as the FA's limited power under a 1975 act to increase domestic crude oil prices up to 10 per cent a year subject to a congressional veto. Thus, a board action on oil prices would be subject to two veto threats, one by the president and another by Congress.
Meanwhile, a House Commerce subcommittee began three weeks of hearings on most of the non-tax conservation and pricing parts of the President's energy package. Chairman John D Dingell (D-Mich.) said he was optimistic that Congress would make a "timely and constructive response to the President's program.
Rep. Clarence J. Brown (R-Ohio) senior subcommittee Republican, said the minority would cooperate in effotrs to develop a rational energy program but said he was "under no illusion that it would be easy." The subcommittee has divided sharply over oil and natural gas pricing issues in the past.