THE STALEMATE on the energy bill and the agreement to put off the hard decisions until next year are an extremely bad sign. They demonstrate and confirm the limitations of the present White House in dealing with Congress and, for that matter, with the country. As the congressional session ends, the bill will remain stuck in the conference between the House and the Senate - a deeply damaging defeat for Mr. Carter.
The energy bill is not merely another item on the administration's list. It was the President's top priority, launched last spring in an atmosphere of emergency, to address "the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes." The consequences of this defeal will go far beyond mere symbolism.
Since the energy bill includes a series of substantial new taxes, the President's budget for 1979 - which goes to Congress in January - will have to be built on much more than the usual amount of guesswork. Because nobody knows what the revenues will be, nobody can draft a tax-cut bill. But economists inside the administration, as well as outside, agree that the economy growing. Without prompt action on the tax cut, the danger of another recession rises sharply.
To get unemployment down, it's necessary to get business investment up. But the continuing uncertainty over energy policy and energy pricing is a powerful inducement to businesses to delay a wide range of investments. It's necessary to expect that the stalemate on energy this winter will have an effect on the unemployment rate next summer. The longer the quarrel persists, the greater the impact is likely to be.
Vice President Mondale offered the cheery view the other day that progress is slow on legislation because the White House consults so carefully with Congress - and that consultation is why this session of Congress has been such a success. We understand why Mr. Mondale is saying that sort of thing, but we earnestly hope that he doesn't believe it. A successful session? Mr. Mondale cited things like the economic stimulus and the farm bill. But it is inconceivable that Congress would not have pumped out a lot of public-works money this year or that it would have let the country's basic farm legislation expire. Congress looks on those bills as its own. It has taken care of its own agenda very efficiently. It is Mr. Carter's agenda that has come out second-best.
Over the next few weeks, with Congress out of town, Mr. Carter needs to spend time and careful thought on this year's unhappy experience with the energy bill. He needs to consider the White House's repeated misjudgments of the bill's progress. Recent experience suggests that his present staff is not meeting the standard that the office requires.
But Mr. Carter faces a political dilemma that goes deeper than organization and staffing. It is difficult for a President even to mention in public the most imminient dangers raised by the country's very heavy imports of oil. For example, the oil-production policy of one country alone, Saudi Arabia, is now crucial to the economic stability of the United States, Western Europe and Japan. But presidential discussion of that delicate point only increases the vulnerability of the Saudis, a small nation surrounded by envious neighbors. For another example, the steady outflow of $45 billion a year on foreign oil tends to depress the American economy, to the considerable extent that the money is not spent here. It is part of the explanation of the high unemployment rate. But Mr. Carter has to be very cautious in talking about the effects of the trade deficit on jobs, because he could easily set off a further surge of protectionism. The President has yet to come to terms with the difficulty of explaining to Americans why it's necessary to cut oil imports. The economists understand the charts and graphs. But the bill is in trouble because most other people simply don't see the point of the exercise.
When Mr. Carter first embarked upon his energy plan, he was evidently under the misapprehension that the important thing was to draft a comprehensive bill. He assumed, perhaps, that the Democrats in Congress, starved for leadership after the Ford and Nixon years, would seize his plan hungrily. In reality, of course, congressional majorities now are more friable than ever. The job description for a President does not call for a planner or designer. What confronts the President is the politician's essential job of creating support and consensus for decisions that - as he correctly believes - the country must take quickly. He cannot expect a consensus to form automatically around an idea merely because he pronounces it good; a President has to build agreement. But that is the part of his responsibility from which Mr. Carter remains most remote.