The Carter administration found itself yesterday smack dab in the middle of a political briarpatch that White House strategists have been fearing for months: scary news about inflation, and not much policymakers can do about it, at least in the short run.
Although the White House trotted out Robert S. Strauss, President Carter's anti-inflation czar, to help take the edge off evening television news reports about the April consumer price index, neither Strauss nor any other top official has any immediate solutions.
White House strategists are slated to meet later this week to take stock of the present anti-inflation program and try to refine current wage-price efforts, but officials say no major shift in existing tactics is likely.
Instead, what administration officials hope to do ia ride out the expected political storm over consumer prices for the next few months and hope for the long-predicted improvement in the food-price statistics sometime in midsummer.
Strauss told reporters yesterday there's "no immediate, foreseeable hope for relief" from rising beef prices although he said they may "peak" in June. And analysts say recent sharp increases in wholesale prices generally will keep inflation high.
The stew over the beef-price situation provides a prime example of Strauss' dilemma. Economists generally agree that the most effective - albeit modest - step Carter could talk to help turn beef prices around now would be to liberalize meat import quotas.
Strauss conceded yesterday that lowering import barriers on beef was "one of the options available - and may be appropriate." The wage-price czar and Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland are scheduled to meet today to discuss the possibility. But officials warn such a move would anger the livestock industry.
But, as Strauss indicated yesterday, pushing the proposal through Congress would be difficult, if not impossible. Indeed, despite vigorous White House objections, the lawmakers now seem bent on raising meat import quotas rather than easing them.
Strauss also backed away from urging consumers to boycott meat, as they did when beef prices surged in 1973. Analysts blame the 1973-74 boycott for helping to create the boombust conditions that led to the current beef-price increases. Instead, Strauss advised consumers to buy cheaper cuts.
What administration insiders expect to emerge from this week's series of meetings is a stepped-up effort in the White House to revamp government policies that tend to contribute to inflation, such as federal regulations and administrative rulings.
The Council on Wage and Price Stability currently is preparing a series of suggestion in this area similar to those recommended in February by Barry Bosworth the agency's director. "We need another list - and soon," one key official said.
Strategists say there also may be an effort to lay out more formally the administration's present antiinflation programs affecting specific industries sharp price increases - food and medical cists, for example.
The White House also may expand its intragovernment anti-inflation "education" efforts, which already are and sectors that seem most prone to making some agencies more conscious of the impact of their actions. 'There's been a big change of attitude in many departments," one official says.
Meanwhile, Strauss is hoping to counter the bad publicity the inflation statistics will bring over the next few months by bringing in daily pledges of support from business on limiting or slowing executives pay and prices. There've been several such gestures in recent days.
But policymakers seem resigned that they face two - and perhaps three - more months of "bad" inflation news, with little they'll be able to do about it. Strauss' White House performance yesterday may have won him equal time on the 6 o'clock news. But only for one night.