THE ENERGY BILL is making its way through Congress like a man trying to fight his way through a raspberry bush. As he cautiously unhooks himself from one bramble, three more entangle themselves around his legs. The bill has now moved forward another couple of inches. But it is still far from certain that anything of significance will be passed in this Congress.
The bill has been stuck since last fall on one crucial point: whether to end the federal price controls on natural gas. The latest development is the vote by the 25 House conferees in favor of a decontrol formula. The vote, 13 to 12, accurately suggests the degree of enthusiasm and unanimity that the compromise evokes. At this stage, after seven months of bickering and whittling, nobody has much to say for it except that it seems more likely to pass than any other. The people who want controls are angry because this settlement abandons controls in principle. The people who want an end to controls are deeply suspicious because the settlement postpones it for at least seven years. Both sides know that the complexity of the compromise will make it very tricky to administer.
It's now quite clear that the Carter administration made a grave mistake of political judgment when it drafted the gas section of the bill. The rest of the bill followed the strategy of raising prices of scarce fuels to hold down consumption. But on gas, the bill proposed exactly the opposite: continued controls, to maintain artificially low prices. It was a strange decision, since President Carter had flatly promised during the campaign to support decontrol. Certainly all the economists around Mr. Carter understood the dangers of continued controls.
Apparently the president chose to stay with controls as a simple matter of expediency - because he thought that Congress would not pass a decontrol bill. As it turned out, he was joining the weaker side of the argument. When he did that, Mr. Carter created an impasse in Congress that only now seems - slowly, uncertainly, and with a thousand conditions - to be dissolving in favor of decontrol.
Let's suppose that this compromise on gas holds up. Will an energy bill be passed? After it zipped through the House last summer, the Senate knocked it into five parts. It passed three - on conservation, the industrial use of coal, and utility rate structures - before it choked on the fourth, gas pricing. The fifth part is the tax on crude oil that the administration has repeatedly described as central to everything else. There is a widespread opinion in the Senate that it will never be passed, but some of the House leaders seem determined to keep on pressing. Whether a large and complicated tax can be negotiated and enacted in the summer before a congressional election seems, at best, dubious.
Part of the trouble is this country's short memory. As long as the lights go on and there's gasoline at the pumps, most Americans resist any change in the national habits. But another part of the trouble is ineptitude and miscalculation at the White House. Thirteen months ago the president made a series of addresses at which he pressed, in terms of the utmost drama and urgency, for this legislation. Since then nothing has been passed, and even Mr. carter has seemed to be only intermittenly concerned about it. It's a strange episode in American political history. At present, there is really only one force pushing the bill forward: an undercurrent of concern, in Congress and in the country, that it would be a very bad sign, for reasons that go far beyond energy policy, to abandon the job or leave it to another year. It would be a rather ominous suggestion that the institution had broken down, that the government had run out of resolution, that Congress had been faced with a hard question and, in the end, couldn't find any answer at all. The central issue is no longer gas and oil, but the government's ability to make up it's mind.