THERE'S A SIMPLE explanation to the Carter administration's tactics on the filibuster. The White House wants a bill. That is why Vice President Mondale invoked his power as presiding officer to end the long stalemate. Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) immediately cried treason. His purpose in the whole tedious exercise was to block the vote to deregulate natural-gas prices, and the administration was against deregulation. But the adminstration knows that further delay on the Senate floor could easily throw the whole series of energy bills into next year - an election year, as no one has forgotten. Neither President Carter nor the congressional leadership is at all anxious to see that happen, with all of the possibilities for further delay and dilution that it would open.
Gas pricing has become a curiously powerful symbol in American politics. The quarrel over gas-price policy has been going in the courts and Congress for a quarter of a century, and it has become one of the litmus issues by which the voterin a hurry will classify a politician. It's one of the great classic debating topics: Whether an artificially low price, with shortages, is better for the public than a high price and no shortages. It's easier for the debaters to handle than oil, with the unpleasant implications of the tremendous and rising oil imports.
The administration was willing to let the gas bill come to a vote because it assumes that it can get the vote turned around in the eventual conference between the Senate and the House. That's probably correct, unfortunately. Deregulation of gas prices is right in principle, and the Senate bill stages the process over a prolonged period in which the expensive new gas would go first to industry in order to protect residential consumers. But right or wrong, it was a narrow vote in the Senate, and the House is leaning heavily the other way.
Mr. Carter sourly called the Senate vote "an injustice to the working people of this country." Mr. Carter is not given to thinking ahead on legislative strategy. If he had done so, it would have occured to him that his next great test in the Senate will be the roll-calls on his oil tax. The purpose of the oil tax is to raise prices to consumers, inducing them to use less. The tax will, in fact, take consumer prices up to world market levels (with a rebate for home-heating fuel). If President Carter thinks that the market level is the right price for oil, why is it an injustice to working people to apply the same logic to natural gas? Currently it would cost you about one-third less to heat your house with gas than oil, because of the low price ceiling on gas. The President has not yet explained why social morality requires a cheaper price for gas than for oil. The inconsistency here is a real one. With the votes on the oil tax still ahead, Mr. Carter would be wise to think twice before flogging the subject of economic justice.
The senators who lost the deregulation vote are now talking in rather dramatic terms about the damage to the President's energy program. But it's been in trouble of one kind or another ever since the Senate started working on it a month ago. The basic purpose of the program is to give the American economy some measure of protection from future oil shortages and foreign disruptions. The method is to begin, in a gingerly way, to enforce conservation and induce industry to shift to coal. The precise nature of the gas-pricing regime is not crucial to the Carter energy program's purpose, as long as the price rises. The truly crucial element is the tax on crude oil - and that bill has not yet come to the Senate floor.