The progress of the energy bill through the Congress demonstrates that reform and strong leadership, far from being at war, go hand in hand. For in the House, which has been reformed, leadership prevailed. And in the Senate, which has not been reformed, the leadership had to give way.
While the stakes are much larger than normal, the energy bill is typical legislation in that it involves an adjustment of conflicting interests. In this instance producers, who have an interest in higher prices, were at war with consumers, whose interest is to hold down prices as much as possible.
The program served up by the Carter administration tilted toward the consumers. It raised prices of oil and natural gas but kept them under a ceiling. It provided that the rise in oil prices would be recaptured in a tax at the wellhead and redistributed to consumers. It emphasized a large number of conservation measures, including special taxes on companies using oil and gas instead of coal for heating purposes.
In the House, the producer interest, while vocal, was relatively weak. For the 75 freshmen elected back in 1974 have forced extensive reform of the rules. In particular, committee chairmen do not automatically acquire their posts by seniority but must continually win election.
Those rules have eliminated most of the barons who used to watch over particular preserves for organized interests. Thus Wilbur Mills, the great tribune of the producing interests - whether business or labor - is out at the Ways and Means Committee, Edward Hebert, the special pal of the military-industrial establishment, no longer rules the roost at Military Affairs. Bob Poage, the famous friend of the farmers, has lost Agriculture.
In the absence of the Barons, enormous power is vested in the official leadership now heading up in Speaker Tip O'Neill. O'Neill made passage of the administration's energy package his No. 1 priority. He set up a special committee dominated by consumer interests to oversee the bill after it cleared the regular committees where the producers were strong. He pushed through the Rules Committee a mode of procedure on the House floor that severely limited amendments. In the end he rammed the administration bill through the House virtually intact.
The Senate, however, has never had the push for reform that came from the class of 74 in the House. Majority Leader Robert Byrd rules his roost by conciliating the true leadership, which is vested in a handful of barons.
Among the most notable of the barons is the head of the Finance Committee, Russell Long of Louisiana. At Finance, Sen. Long deals with a wide range of issues crucial to the administration, among them tax reform and Social Security as well as the tax side of energy.
As a senator from an oil and gas state, Long favored amending the energy program to give producers a better break. In particular he sought a higher ceiling price on natural gas, and a provision that some of the wellhead tax on oil be set aside as an incentive for drillers instead of being redistributed to consumers.
Ten days ago the administration was obliged to compromise with Long in agreeing to remit part of the wellhead tax to oil producers. That compromise engaged consumer advocates. Though debate had already been limited, they set in motion an unusual filibuster - a filibuster built around offering repeated amendments - to block Senate consideration of motions to deregulate natural gas.
The filibuster-by-amendment enraged many Senate barons, including Long. They prevailed on Majority Leader Byrd and the administration in the person of Vice President Walter Mondale to use a procedural power play to break the filibuster-by-amendment.
On Tuesday the issue of natural-gas deregulation came to a vote. A provision for phased deregulation won, 50 to 46, in an atmosphere of intense bitterness generated by the procedural wrangle.
The administration continues to oppose phased deregulation. In the end, after conference between Senate and House, what is likely to emerge is what Sen. Long has wanted all along a bill that puts a high ceiling on natural gas and remits some of the tax on oil to producers.
To me that seems a reasonable compromise. But whether good or bad, the moral is clear: The way to give power to the central leadership, the way to avoid insolvable procedural wrangles and the accumulation of power by the barons is to push through with reforms - in the Senate as in the House.