James Schlesinger, the President's energy man, has recently been reminding visitors about the difference between hearing a fight on the radio and simultaneously watching it on television. "When you hear it, it's a right and a left, and he's up and he's down. When you watch it on television, you realize that very few of the blows are doing serious damage."
Schlesinger uses the contrast to drive home a point about the administration's energy program. Most of the reporting has featured day-to-day blows struck against the program by the Congress. But in the perspective afforded by the current congressional recess the truly impressive fact is how much of the program has passed intact through the early tests.
These tests took place in the Commerce and the Ways and Means committees of the House. They have now almost completed their job. In assessing their work, it is necessary to move past the myriad small pieces of law to an analysis by function. For that purpose it seems useful to divide the program into three goals: conservation, an equitable price structure and a shift from oil and gas to coal.
With respect to conservation, elaborate provisions for mandatory insulation of buildings have been adopted. A subcommittee of the Commerce Committee has approved a measure (even stronger than that proposed by the administration) for restructuring utility rates to prevent the bonuses that now accrue to big users.
A tax on gas-guzzling cars had been accepted, as well as a bonus for electric cars, to which the administration attaches a high priority. But a standby tax on gasoline that would have risen to 50 cents a gallon has been killed, as have proposals for rebates to producers of the most gas-efficient cars.
With respect to price structure, the administration aim has been to stimulate investment in oil and gas drilling without producing windfalls for the companies. To that end, the Commerce Committee has approved, by a single vote, provisions for controlling the price of natural gas. The new price would be $1.75 per thousand cubic feet as against the current $1.45 and the deregulation that the industry wanted. The limit would apply to gas sold within a state as well as between states.
For petroleum, a new pricing system has been adopted that would let oil drift to the world price - which is roughly $13.50 a barrel. A wellhead tax has been approved that would siphon off to the federal treasury the increase in oil prices. The wellhead tax, estimated to yield some $60 billion annually, would be rebated to at least those users of gasoline unable to pay the higher prices.
As to the shift to coal, the Ways and Means Committee has adopted a very stiff tax on industries in most parts of the country that use gas and oil to heat boilers. It has exempted from this tax industries that process gas and oil (notably petrochemicals) and areas where coal-burning is not practical (notably California).
Obviously the administration has lost some important features of the original program. The various exemptions are estimated to cost the government some $30 billion more than originally provided in the program. Conservation objectives are down by around one-third. At best, the bill likely to clear the Congress this year will not get the country all the way to the goals set out in the President's message of April 20.
But in my view, anyway, the crucial thing is that so much of the program is going through. Despite all its special-interest representation and back-scratching instincts, the Congress is accepting a major commitment.
That commitment has a momentum of its own. Once an energy program is under way, it generates a logic of enormous force, so if a good part of the program gets through now, which seems likely, the missing parts could easily be supplied in one-shot pieces of legislation in the years to come. After all, it is worth noting that the inherent logic of a coherent program has already swept aside commitments against price controls on gas and oil made by two powerful, even stubborn, men: James Schlesinger as a conservative economist and Jimmy Carter as a presidential candidate.