The House Ways and Means Committee began ripping up President Carter's energy program yesterday in a stunning series of votes that killed his standby gasoline tax, struck down his proposed tax rebate on high-mileage cars and put off any penalty taxes on gas guzzlers until the 1979 model year.
A drastically reduced plan to tax gas guzzlers, which would cost new car buyers an estimated $3.27 billion less than the administration proposal over the next eight years, was offered by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-UI.) and approved on a show-of-hands vote 24 to 13.
The standby gasoline tax, proposed to go up a maximum of 5 cents a gallon a year, and the rebate on fuel-efficent cars never had a prayer. The gas tax, which could have escalated to a total of 50 cents a gallon over a 10-year period, was wiped out on a roll-call vote of 27-10 without even a moment's debate on the merits. A majority of the committee's Democrats lined up with all 12 Republicans to reject the proposal.
Ways and Means Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.) told reporters he saw no hope for reviving the gas tax.
Asked whether it was dead, Ullman said, "I'm sure that it is. We gave it a royal try. We failed."
But a spokesman for Carter energy adviser James R. Schlesinger Jr. insisted nevertheless, at day's end, that "on balance we had a pretty good day," and that "on balance the program is alive and moving."
The sharply altered gas-guzzler tax was drafted late Wednesday night by House staff members after consultations with lobbyists and technical experts from the auto companies. Bernard Shapiro, chief of staff for the Joint Committee on Taxation, testified that both Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. felt they would be left "at a competitive disadvantage" if the Carter administration proposal were adopted.
The President had proposed a gas guzzler tax, to start this fall, on the 1978 models getting less than 18 miles to the gallon.
The plan adopted by the committee would not impose a tax on big, low-mileage cars until the 1979 models come off the assembly lines and then it would penalize only those getting less than 15 miles to the gallon.
Unlike Ford and Chrysler, the committee was told. General Motors was "in a much better situation" because that giant corporation had the capital back in 1975 to start the 3 1/2-to-4year process of phasing out 8-cyliner cars and replacing them with smaller engines and models.
But even though the gas guzzler tax approved by the committee was described as a "compromise," it was made clear that all the automakers, including GM, are opposed to any penalty keyed to individual motor vehicles. And while the Ways and Means proposal would raise less money than the administration scheme, it would impose a higher penalty tax, starting with 1981 models, on the most inefficient cars.
For instance, a new 1981 model that could not make even 12.5 miles to the gallon would be taxed $1,216 under the committee plan as compared to $935 under the discarded administration proposal.
The proposed rebate of up to $500 for smaller cars fell on a motion by Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-Ohio), who said would cause "extremely serious problems for American trade." If it gave the rebate on all fuel-efficient cars. Congress would in effect be taxing domestic models to subsidize foreign imports which generally get better gasoline mileage. But if foreign cars were excluded from the rebates, this would violate trade agreements and invite retaliation against American products.
"It just can't set well to tax people who buy an American car and pay people who buy a foreign car," observed Rep. Abner Mikva (D-Ill.).
The rebate was rejected by a top-heavy vote of 32 to 5. One of the few dissenters, Rep. Otis Pike (D-N.Y.), said he thought it "just ridiculous" to reject the plan simply because it would encourage importation of foreign cars.
"We are not here to protect an industry. We are here to save energy . . . to cut down on the importation of petroleum," Pike protested. Instead, he said, "the whole idea here is to insure that nothing bad ever happens to the autoindustry, no matter how much petroleum we have to import."
Yesterday's balloting, the first major test of the President's energy program, was tentative, but the margins against the standby gas tax and the rebate for smaller cars appeared decisive.
The mood in the committee's expansive, high-ceilinged hearing room was slightly chaotic. One member after another complained, without contradiction, about not even knowing the impact of what they were voting on.
Committee staffers said they had no estimate on the amount of gasoline and a number of congressmen were convinced that it would save none at all.
"I don't think we should make any bones about it," said Rep. Joseph L. Fisher (D-Va.). "It's not going to cut gasoline consumption in the short run or even the middle run."
Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), the ranking GOP member on the committee, said he, too, recognized "we're not going to save much in the way of energy" with the guzzler tax, which is expected progressively to discourage the production of big cars. But he said he was going along with the "compromise" for the moment and reserving the right to change his mind, depending on what the committee decides to do with the money that is raised.
The guzzler tax had been designed by the administration to pay for the rebates on fuel-efficient cars. Fisher served notice that he plans to offer an amendment next week that would set aside the guzzler taxes for mass transit, for energy research and development, and for allocation to the states.
The auto makers, meanwhile, still hope to kill the guzzler tax completely. General Motors lobbyist William Thompson told a reporter that "no one in the auto industry wants it" and indicated that an effort might be made to squelch it entirely when Ways and Means meet June 23 for its final markup on the automotive sections of the energy package.
"We're not looking for any advantageous position in the market as a result of taxes," Thompson said of GM's technological edge over Ford and Chrysler. He said the automakers feel that the standards set by the Energy Policy And Conservation Act - calling for a fleetwide average of 18 miles a gallon for 1978 models and eventually 27.5 miles a gallon for 1985 models - ought to be sufficient.