LET'S TRY to take inventory of the damage to President Carter's energy program last week. First and most important, the House Ways and Means Committee rejected the tax on gasoline. The loss is serious - although, certainly, the chance of enactment was poor from the beginning. The committee also turned down the rebate on small cars. The tax credit for home insulation passed a preliminary test by one vote, promising trouble farther down the line.
A House Commerce subcommittee voted to deregulate newly discovered natural gas, which Mr. Carter wants to leave under controls. Mr. Carter is trying to kill the plans to build a breeder reactor in Clinch River, Tenn., which has become a symbol of a commitment to a highly dangerous plutonium technology. But the House Science Committee disagrees with Mr. Carter and voted provisionally to authorize the money for Clinch River.
Verdict: The damage is serious, and much of it is beyond remedy. It is an exaggeration to say that the Carter plan has been destroyed or that its surviving elements are unworkable. But as an economic strategy, the plan has been severely skewed away from conservation. As a political initiative, the whole thing is losing momentum.
There is still no consensus in Congress, or the country, about energy. The people in one committee who voted to deregulate gas have a very different view from the people in another committee who voted against gasoline taxes. They, in turn, have a different sense of the future from the people who support the Clinch River reactor! When all of these committees have finished working on the separate pieces of the Carter plan, they will turn them back to a special committee under Rep. Thomas L. Ashley of Ohio, which will put them together into one coherent bill. The prospect now is that Mr. Ashley will be presented with something looking very much like a pile of jackstraws, with each piece pointing in a different direction.
If Mr. Carter's energy plan was designed to have only a gradual effect, the congressional version will be even more tepidly gradual. On Friday Mr. Carter took an angry swipe at the various industrial lobbies, whom he blamed for these reverses. But there's more to it than lobbying. The country in general is simply not inclined to inconvenience itself now because of a possible crisis later.
Meanwhile, the summer vacation season is here, and gasoline sales are breaking records. Industrial oil consumption is rising even faster. Oil imports are one-third higher than a year ago. Everything now depends on Saudi Arabia's willingness to keep raising production. American officials increasingly talk of the need to reappraise Mideast policy in view of that the filling stations, there is no urgency about energy legislation. That is the national predisposition and, despite a good deal of effort, Mr. Carter has been unable to change it.