A senior House Republican asked Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) in vain yesterday to overrule a subcommittee chairman and let him make public a staff report favorable to the oil industry.
Rep. James M. Collins of Texas, ranking Republican on the Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, said he made the request because subcommittee Chairman John E. Moss (D-Calif.) has refused to let him discuss the report with his staff or constituents.
The May 4, 1976, memo reportedly concludes that the major oil companies did not conspire to lower estimates of gas reserves to get higher prices in 1974 and 1975. Moss allowed Collins to see teh report, but cited the proprietary nature of the information and a 1957 precedent from the late Speaker Sam Rayburn as grounds for insisting that Collins could not copy it or take notes.
The Speaker ruled the Collins request out of order late yesterday. Collins said, "It means there is an absolute gag rule in the House and the Speaker condones it."
The memo "is not secret, it is not classified, it is not proprietary and it was not taken in executive session," Collins said in a telephone interview. "Unless members can take out non-classified information, they [the Democrats] can cover up anything and put an absolute, dictatorial clamp on investigations."
In June, 1975, Moss' subcommittee heard Federal Trade Commission staffers say they suspected that the major gas producers, acting trhough the American Gas Association, deliberately underestimated their reserves. The lower the reserves, the higher the wellhead price the Federal Power Commission allowed.
After the hearings, Moss launched his own investigation and subpoenaed some 1 million documents from the major oil companies, to comapre their estimates with the estimates made by the AGA. Six accountants from the General Accounting Office worked with the committee staff in analyzing the documents. The report has not yet been completed, but the May, 1976, memo apparently summarizes preliminary findings.
Collins has long supported the oil industry and deregulation of natural gas. He would not discuss the contents of thememo, but an aide said it would be fair to say that, if Collins wants the memo made public, it contains pro-industry conclusions.
Moss was in his California district yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Tom Green, his attorney on the committee, said Collins isn't playing by House rules.
One rule provides that committee hearings, records, files and investigatory data are property of the House, not of individual members, although they have access to them. But Speaker Rayburn ruled in 1957 that members could not photocopy them.
Another House rule requires that Collins ask Moss to call a subcommittee meeting and get a vote to release the report. Green said the report is confidential, and MOss takes the view that privilege extends not only to material taken in executive session but also to reports based on such material.
Collins asked for a change in House rules to allow members to copy committee records in longhand. He said his right of access should permit that. Otherwise, he said how can he discuss the report with his counsel or prepare his own statements?
Collins said the investigation has been going on for more than two years, yet he has never received a progress report. He said that company documents as well as reports by GAO and the U.S. Geological Survey are all turned in to Moss and "he never lets us see anything." He said he wonders what kind of rights the minority has in Congress if the majority can decide what it can and cannot see.