President Carter yesterday accused House committees of caving in to auto and oil lobbies on rejecting three of his energy proposals, and said "the people will pay" if the actions stand.
But general reaction of leading House members to the committee votes was that, while significant, they were predictable and preliminary. They said that Congress can still pass a meaningful energy bill, though probably somewhat different than Carter requested.
On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee decisively rejected Carter's proposed standby tax on gasoline and tax rebates on the purchase of high-mileage cars, and approved a weakened version of his proposed tax on big gas-guzzler cars. A House Commerce subcommittee voted to decontrol the price of new natural gas, which Carter wanted to keep regulated, though at a higher price than now.
But Rep. Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio), chairman of the ad hoc House committee whose assignment is to produce a single coordinated energy bill after a various legislative committees act on parts of the plan, predicted that the House will reverse the natural gas deregulation vote and that other major parts of the President's program will be approved.
His proposed wellhead tax on oil to push up its price, assorted proposals to induce industry to convert from oil and gas to coal and home insulation programs "are very important and we'll win those," Ashley said.
The President's concern was transmitted to reporters by his press secretary, Jody Powell, who said Carter feels "the oil companies and the automobile companies won significant preliminary victories" in Thursday's votes.
Carter was described by Powell as considering the vote to deregulate new natural gas as "particularly serious," an action which "if it finally becomes law will cost American consumers more than $80 billion over the next eight years."
Powell quoted the President as saying: "The people of this country will be the ones to suffer if our hopes for an energy plan are thwarted. They will be the ones who will pay for yesterday's special-interest victories."
The press secretary called deregulation of natural gas an "$80-billion rip-off of the American public," and said the administration will do its best to "kill the damn thing." He later amended this to a $71-billion ripoff because administration energy specialists estimate that deregulation would cost consumers up to $86 billion while the Carter plan would cost $15 billion. Deregulation supporters dispute these figures.
Congress has the responsibility to find alternative energy-saving programs to replace those it rejects, Powell said.
Asked why he criticized only the auto industry when its union, the United Auto Workers, also worked against the auto-related taxes, Powell said "we disagree quite strongly with the UAW" on this. But he added it is the industry that decides whether to build big or little cars.
John O'Leary, head of the Federal Energy Administration, said the deregulation vote in subcommittee on natural gas was predictable but that he expects the full House Commerce Committee to turn it around.
On the auto-related taxes, O'Leary noted that the gas-guzzler tax, a disincentive to build big cars, was approved.
The wellhead oil tax to force up the price oil is the heart of the oil conservation program, O'Leary said. What this says is that we are really going to have to do our work."
At the Capitol, Ashley called the first committee votes "tentative and prelminary. The vote to deregulate natural gas is unacceptable. It would be a massive jolt to gas consumers." He said his committee would recommend reversing that action if the Commerce Committee does not, and predicted the House will go along.
Ashley said his special committee will be looking for alternatives during the next month to fill gaps in the Carter plan created by the legislative committees. A higher price for gasoline is the only way to cut consumption, Ashley said. "It makes no sense to make it cheaper to drive a car, which will be the result of more efficient engines."
House Majority Whip John Brademas (D-Ind.) suggested that one result of killing the rebate on high-mileage cars may be to make the gas guzzler tax more appealing. Taxes on gas-guzzlers that were to be used for rebates on high-mileage cars could now be invested in mass transit, railroad bed improvement or other programs to improve transportation. Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has said this is the only way he could support the tax.
The rebate provision was not well thought through, Brademas said. It would either have had the effect of taxing a domestic industry to subsidize imports or if the law discriminated against foreign cars, would have violated trading agreements.
There is still "great fluidity" in the position of House members on energy Brademas said. "The issue is so complex, the interests so diverse, the alternatives so numerous it is hard to say with assurance how it will come out."
Reports by the Congressional Budget Office and General Accounting Office estimating that Carter has overstated energy savings from his program by 1 million barrels of oil a day have added to his problem. Brademas said.
House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said he did not consider the committee votes as fatal. The gasoline tax is probably dead, he said, but it was obviously the most vulnerable part of the Carter program and not the most important.
Rep. Barber B. Conable (R-N.Y.), senior Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said he thought the gasoline tax and high-mileage car rebate might well have been offered as "throwaway items" to divert criticism from more central parts of the program such as the wellhead tax on oil and conversion of industry to coal. "Most members want to work something out," said Conable, who supported the approved version of the gas-guzzler tax.
Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), second-ranking member of Ashley's committee, called the committee votes "significant but not suprising. It's not time to get excited. These preliminary rounds usually are dominated by special interest groups. I believe an energy package can be sold this year."