In the sculpted chambers of the House Ways and Means Committee where two plaster eagles gaze upon a carpet of gold, those great birds watched last week with open mouths.
Lobbyists of every persuasion were whispering, cajoling, informing and complaining over the disposition of $2.8 billion in public money.
The oil companies reached for the money, urging an amendment that would let them keep part of President Carter's new tax on domestic crude oil. A needed incentive to finance the drilling of new wells, they called it. The President called that "a rip-off" and the amiable battle was joined.
"These Nader people are the most active of all," complained Rep. Joe Waggonner, the gregarious Louisiana Democrat who is tactician and point man for the oil and gas states. "They talk about the industry, the industry doesn't do any lobbying at all compared to those public-interest people."
Rep. Ken Holland, a second-term Democrat from South Carolina, reported a rather different experience. Shortly after Holland discreetly informed a few acquaintances that he intended to vote with President Carter, the congressman found the path to his seat clogged with solicitous lobbyists from oil companies. Their names and faces, not to mention their arguments, became a bit blurred for him.
"When you hear from 52 fellas exery time you enter the room, you kind of have a way of blocking it all out," Holland allowed. "All you can remember is saying hello."
The President and his lobbyists won.Temporarily at least, for this issue will come up again. They won by a couple of votes, for it is almost always close in the House Ways and Means Committee on such issues. On the gold carpet, where the stakes are so high, every side plays hard.
But it is surprisingly decorous. Etiquette prevails. For the tourists who wander in, the proceedings look like democracy droning along. Tax debates tend to induce headaches. The casual spectators do not stay long.
The accoustics in the huge committee chamber are poor, so many of the regular lobbyists sit together along the back row of spectator chairs, miles from the committee's two-tiered dais, but where they are close to the stereo speakers.
Andy Vitale, the former aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy who is chief monitor for the American Petroleum Institute, prefers to stand. Bob Brandon, the tall and shaggy lobbyist for Ralph Nader's tax reform group, moves around a lot, kibitzing with committee staffers, handing out broadsides.
Bill Cable, a White House lobbyist, joshes off-the-floor with his adversary, Joe Waggonner, and the two compare "head counts." Bill Timmons, who used to lobby the Hill for President Nixon, was present and counting for Standard Oil of Indiana.
This time the "head counts" were very cloudy until the final hours - a condition that induces considerable nervousness when there is so much money involved. The Ways and Means Committee has 37 members. It takes 19 to win. And on most important matters, the oil industry can count on 16 of them - the 12 Republicans plus Waggonner and three other Democrats from oil-and-gas states. A new member, Rep. Edgar L. Jenkins, a conservative Democrat from Georgia, was counted by many as a 17th vote on the crucial "plowback" provision.
Thus, as tax reformer Brandon put it so bluntly, "all you have to do is lose a couple of wishy-washy Democrats and you lose."
That arithmetic faced President Carter's own lobbyists last week, as they tried to recover their momentum from the embarrassing defeats a week earlier when Ways and Means killed the President's proposed gasoline tax (or buried it - some say it was already dead, struck down his rebate on high-mileage cars, and weakened his "gas-guzzler" tax on large automobiles.
After an afternoon of debate on the well-head tax and the industry's proposed "plowback" for exploration capital. Some administration supporters on the committee were already nervous and thinking about a compromise - better to cut your losses, they suggested, than let the oil industry win the whole game. The industry lobbyists were originally talking about "plowing back" a full half of the proceeds from the wellhead tax - a bite which could go as deep as $7 billion a year.
"I thought we could win it, but I like to be sure," Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore), said. But others described Ullman as "wobbly" and "nervous" and ready to compromise with oil.
"He didn't think he had the votes," said Rep. Richard Gephardt, a freshman Democrat from St. Louis. "I talked to him the night before. He seriously doubted the votes were there."
So Ullman ordered the committee staff to draft a "plowback" compromise, pegged at 20 per cent, which would yield as much as $2.8 billion for the industry. This was an ominous signal to Carter's team; it suggested that the chairman was willing to cave in, that maybe the votes weren't there and some sort of compromise was inevitable.
When word of the draft compromise circulated Monday night, alarms were sounded. Early Tuesday morning, Cable and Frank Moore, the chief White House lobbyist, met with the President and got the word - no compromise.
"Compromise was totally unacceptable," said Cable, an old hand on Capitol Hill who is well-familiar with the rhythm of these things. He described Carter's hard line with a bit of wonder in his voice:
"It's really the populist in him . . . I've heard him sit there and he says, 'Exxon's got a $4 billion cash flow and Mobil just bough Montgomery Ward and exploration is going at a record rate. These don't look like companies that are starved for capital."
The learning began with Ullman.
"Ullman was told very directly the President wouldn't buy it," Cable said. "Frank Moore talked to him for 20 or 30 minutes. Ullman was nervous. He seemed to be looking for a compromise and we thought it was a bad idea to even talk about compromise."
The tax-reform lobbyists were also up early, talking about tactics with kindred spirits on the committee, particularly Rep. Abner Mikva, the Democratic liberal reformer from Illinois. The tactic was "to raise hell," as Brandon put it, and make sure that the "plowback" compromise was characterized in the strongest terms - a "rip-off" or "a negative income tax for the oil companies" or whatever rhetoric would give it a bad smell.
The chairman called an early cacus of the Democrats on the committee to chat about the draft. "Everybody started storming at the chairman," said Mikva afterward. "We ended up almost giving away the whole ball game for no reason at all."
Even the mild-mannered tax expert - Assistant Treasury Secretary Laurence Woodworth who used to advise Congress on these issues - reportedly had some testy words for the chairman.
"That's Ullman's problem," sighed one administration lobbyist. "Rather than leaning on people, he gives in to them."
But bucking-up Ullman wasn't the only problem. There were three or four junior Democratic members - Holland Jenkins, Rep. Raymond Lederer from Philadelphia - who had not committed themselves to either side. The administration was worried about them and the oil lobbyists were hopeful.
Rep. William Brodhead, a Democrat from Detroit, was also holding out - trying to get an administration commitment that it would not attempt to reinvigorate the gas-guzzler tax aimed at his hometown's favorite industry.He didn't get the commitment, but he tried.
One of the uncommitted votes, Lederer of Philadelphia, was angry at the White House on another matter - the Vice President's hollow campaign pledge to keep open the Frankford Arsenal in his hometown, an issue of broken promises, not petroleum. The Carter administration is shutting down the arsenal this fall.
"I figured if that's the way they want to play the game, okay," Lederer said.
Cable said all of these doubtful congressmen were given a lot of what lobbyists like to call "member contact."
The oil lobbyists were looking on these matters long before the hour of decision arrived. One measure of their effectiveness is that Ways and Means members begin hearing from API and the individual companies weeks or months in advance - position papers, personal letters, friendly visits - to explain the intricate arithmetic of oil finances and the justice of their propositions.
Facts do count, so does reason. Even the most cynical critics agree that Ways and Means has improved itself substantially in recent years as a forum for deciding the complex money issues. Congressional reforms opened up committee processes and Ways and Means was relieved of the job of making Democratic committee assignments, so its members can concentrate more on the tax code and less on politics.
Friendly persuasion still has a role, however. Rep. Otis Pike, the Democrat from Long Island whose vote was never in doubt, got an early morning phone call from an old friend, a former congressman.
"He asked me," Pike said, "What would you think if your old colleague . . . were calling you at this time of the morning?" And I said, 'I would thik he was working for some oil company.' He laughed. I laughed. "He was."
Freshman Gephardt heard at various points from Champlin Oil, from Marathon, from oil jobbers in his district, from Georgia oil men, from Washington oil lobbyists.
Working on the other side of the street, so to speak, were labor (the AFL-CIO's Jane O'Grady) and a small but aggressive band of guerrilas from tax-reform and environmental organizations. Their unspoken clout, though rarely invoked, can be effective - their public censure could give an upstanding liberal Democrat a bad name back home.
"I believe in behavior modification with these people," said Brandon of Nader's Tax Reform Research Group. "They have to be made accountable. To say simply a guy is a good guy most of the time and he doesn't have to account for his votes, that simply doesn't get very far. I think we have a prophylactic effect."
Brandon's colleague is Bill Pietz, a former Philadelphia tax lawyer who knows how to read the fine print because he used to write some of it. "Having been a practitioner of loopholes, having invented a few myself," said Pietz, "I spent five years helping the rich to reduce their taxes and I wanted to do something morally rewarding."
Another tax-reform lobbyist is a plainclothes Jesuit priest, Tom Reese. He did a graduate thesis on tax legislation and got so interested that he became a full-time lobbyist for Taxation With Representation. His order approves - a mission of social justice, as he put it.
"If Drinan can be a congressman, I can be a lobbyist," said Reese, referring to the Massachusetts Democrat who is also a Jesuit.
The administration and its allies made their case in the morning debate, as strongly as possible. Woodworth, a man not noted for flamboyant rhetoric, announced: "The President considers a provision of this type to be a rip-off on the American people and totally unjustified."
Rep. Bill Archer, the Houston Republican who is an articulate spokesman for the capital of oil, snapped back: "The next ime you talk to him, you ask him how he defines peanut subsidies."
Somebody quipped that peanuts are peanuts compared to oil.
When Holland passed the word to the White House lobbyist that he was all right on the issue, "the counterattack started," Holland said. "There were phone calls and buttonhole jobs in the hall. I was contacted by some of my colleagues [from South Carolina] who had been called by someone else. One of them caught me out on the street."
Holland held firm. So did Lederer of Pennsylvania though he refused to give anyone a commitment. Brodhead assured Mikva he was all right, too. Rep. Jim Guy Tucker, another freshman Democrat, has some oil and gas in his home state but, as Arkansas attorney general he made a reputation "of kind of taking the oil barons on," as one oil lobbyist put it.
Long before the roll call, Joe Waggoner of Plain Dealing, La. leaned toward Ab Mikva of Evanston, Ill., - these two men could not be further apart on tax philosophy - and whispered a friendly concession: "I don't know what you guys are fooling around about.I know how to count. You got the vote."
With $2.8 billion on the table, the administration forces wanted to be sure.Waggoner counted 16 votes for oil with one sleeper - who he wouldn't name, of course - a congressman who had promised to vote with oil only if he was needed to make the 19 votes.If Waggoner had another sleeper or two tucked away somewhere, oil would win.
The White House zeroed in on Edgar Jenkins of Jasper, Ga. "At noon," said lobbyist Cable, "he was becoming less committal."
Cable called his boss, chief lobbyist Moore, who went in to see his boss, Jimmy Carter, who got on the telephone to chat with Jenkins, his fellow Georgian.
"He didn't twist any arms, didn't say this was his vote or anything like that," Jenkins explained afterwards. "He felt this was one thing his people were right about."
In any case, Congressman Jenkins came to agree with his President. Two hours later, the roll call was 21 to 16. No doubtfuls, no unknowns. Waggonner tried twice more with less ambitious versions of the "plowback" but nobody would buy them either.
The administration won. For the moment. This week Ways and Means begins to go back through the energy tax legislation point by point, ratifying the fine print. This gives everyone a chance to change his or her mind and sometimes they do.
Sometimes the alignment shift. After Joe Waggonner lost on the "plowback," for instance, he succeeded in killing the homeowners' rebate on heating oil - a provision dear to northeastern liberal Democrats. So, who knows, if some of those northerns want their oil rebate back, maybe they can work out something with the southerners who still want their oil "plowback."
"The cycle isn't finished yet," oil lobbyist Timmons said softly. "But I'd just as soon let everyone think the President's won a major victory at this point." CAPTION:
Picture 1, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) listens to tax lobbyists Bob Brandon before Ways and Means voting. Photos by James K.W. Atherton - The Washington Post; Picture 2, While committee votes on $2.8 billion, Brando talks to his colleague, Bill Pietz.; Picture 3, Brandon in discussion with new Ways and Means member, Rep. Tuck, during markup.