THE ENERGY BILL, unfinished and stalemated, is a heavy piece of baggage for President Carter to carry with him on his trip abroad. It's an awkward thing to have to pick up every time the plane lands. Before he takes off for Europe and Asia on Thursday, Mr. Carter might want to consider what he's going to do with it.
Politics demands an ability to turn embarrassment and setback to good use. Mr. Carter's inability to secure the bill this year is certainly a setback, and it prevents him from exploiting the trip to advertise a clear and determined American energy plan. That's unfortunate.But Mr. Carter can now reverse his tactics and seize the trip as a magnificent opportunity to show Americans why the bill is crucial not only to their own country but to most of the world.
When Mr. Carter gets to Iran and Saudi Arabia, he will congratulate his hosts for their leadership in holding oil prices at their present level. But they will remind him that the present commitment runs only half a year or so. For the longer term, the Iranians and Saudis are going to tell him, in their solemn and sad-eyed way, that much depends on the United States. If the United States continues to buy more and more of the world's oil, they will say, it is going to become very difficult to restrain prices. That's quite true. Mr. Carter's failure to get the energy bill passed this year is being widely interpreted abroad as American's refusal to curb its appetite for oil.
When Mr. Carter lands in Paris, he will be in the one major industrial country that has chosen not to join the International Energy Agency. The IEA was set up in the aftermath of the 1973-74 oil crisis to organize joint efforts at conservation and fuel management. France stayed out mainly to indicate mistrust of American leadership. Mr. Carter will not have to press the president of France very hard to learn that this year oil consumption in France is actually below last year's level - in contrast to the situation in the United States, where oil consumption this year has been rising rapidly. France's extremely good record in conservation is not entirely owed to calculation and virtue; industrial production has been dropping there, and most of the saving is in industrial fuels. Regardless, the United States has continued to increase its imports of oil, and Europe has not.
If Mr. Carter now wants to beat the drum of his endangered energy bill, this trip is his chance. He will be followed by two planeloads of media people through nine days of an itinerary that does not, to be candid, promise much else of great moment. The trip comes at a time of the year when the flow of news is apt to run a bit low. The President will not have great trouble gaining a hearing among his fellow citizens at home.
He will have only to tell his listeners what the leaders of other countries tell him. The carefree, eat-drink-and-merry American attitude toward oil is increasingly regarded as a menace by the people abroad whose cooperation this country needs most - the oil producers who favor price restraint, the political moderates in OPEC, the democracies against whom the United States is bidding for limited supplies. It's a somber message to open the New Year, but it's one that Americans need to hear.