A recurrent cause of trouble not only for his energy program but for his presidency surfaced again last weekend when President Carter personally alerted energy officials that he was "going public" to save his bill in the Senate.
There is no evidence that any official in the Energy department objected. But after President Carter entered the White House press room on Sept. 26 to blame "special interests" - that is, Big Oil and its Senate allies - for dismemberment of his energy bill, the department spread the word across Capitol Hill that it had no part in the attack.
It was in fact pure Jimmy Carter - evidence that in some respects he has changed very little after eight months in office. The President is still inclined to moralize on issues that far from being moral, are matters of practical politics and to appeal directly to the voters whenever he runs into trouble in Congress. The anger on Capitol Hill generated by Carter's outburst promises trouble ahead for his ambitious legislative program.
Even some administration officials admit that it was no high-pressure lobying campaign by the oil and gas industry that delivered multiple wounds to the energy program. Only a handful of the industry's giants (led by Gulf and Mobil) have pressed hard against the Carter program - a mere shadow of oil lobbying in past years. Indeed, consumer and labor lobbyists were more effective in sabotaging the oil equalization tax.
The Senate disaster grew from a combination of factors: deepening public unrest with government regulation: fading public support for the Carter program: failure to devise a Senate strategy after Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill guided the program through the House so easily.
Both friends and foes of the program use a harsh word to describe a basic source of the problem: incompetency. A case in point was the oil equalization tax. Shortly after Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to discuss compromises. Assistant Treasury Secretary Laurence Woodworth proposed a different approach. When Woodworth left the room. Assistant Energy Secretary Al Alm popped up with still a third version.
In this chaos, the President used a technique he often employed as governor of Georgia: Lumping his opponents with "special interests." It was the decision of Carter, not of his congressional lobbyists or his Energy Department. But Schlesinger, himself hostile to Big Oil, approved it.
Other administration officials did not at all approve. "If you make the same appeal against special interests too many times," one told us, "it begins to lose all effect." Other officials saw inconsistency in the President's attacking the industry for raising the cost of energy when his own program does exactly the same thing.
Knowing from experience that the President could not be moved, officials confined their activities to toning down Carter's language. Names of individual senators and oil companies were removed from the statement.
The President need not have pushed the panic button. The energy bill, though in disarray, is far from dead. At this writing, it seems the Senate may pass a natural-gas deregulation bill, but the Senate-House conference will surely find a compromise setting a higher regulated price. The tax features of the program are still subject to compromise.
The President's tactic was clearly a bad way to approach U.S. senators. The judgment of one Democrat who has strongly opposed gas deregulation and generally backed the President's program: "It is patronizing when the President sets himself above us and suggests we are being manipulated by lobbyists."
What particularly irritates supporters of gas deregulation is the fact that candidate Carter himself backed this position just a year ago when seeking support from oil-producing states. Accordingly, these Democratic senators feel that the President's hostility to the industry is not born of conviction but of opinion polls showing emotional public resentment against Big Oil.
"It was poison," confides one administration official in describing the effect of the President's tactic on the Senate. On a gas-deregulation vote just following the Carter attack, the President lost two additional Democratic senators: North Dakota's Quentin Burdick and, from his own state of Georgia, Sam Nunn.
Coming less than a week after the resignation of Bert Lance, the sudden attack on "special interests" suggests the Lance affair has by no means ended moralizing in the Oval Office. Upgrading conventional political questions to the status of good v. evil is still an ingrained habit for Carter, but one that has not helped his energy program and could do him harm in the future.