House - Senate energy tax conferees meet Thursday for the first time this year, not expecting to reach agreement but to give President Carter words of hope to carry to the economic summit meeting in Bonn this weekend.
The administration reportedly is orchestrating the meeting to produce statements that Carter can relay to impatient Japanese and European trading partners as showing that Congress is at work and can produce a national energy program this year.
It is important to other nations that the United States adopt an energy policy that will reduce oil imports in order to strengthen the dollar abroad and permit sale of more foreign goods here at cheaper prices. And it is important to the United States to persuade other nations that America is serious about getting energy under control because it wants others in turns to expand their economics and broaden markets for American goods.
At Thursday's meeting the administration can count on a statement from House Ways and Means Commitee Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore) testifying to the need of enactment of a tax on domestic crude oil, which is the House approved centerpiece of Carter's program to save 4.5 million barrels of oil a day by 1985. They hope for a statement by Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La), Senate Finance Commitee chairman who has been away for two weeks, that the crude oil tax is not dead, though he has so proclaimed it periodically since the Senate rejected it last fall.
To most observers at the Capitol, and to at least some in the administration, the crude oil tax looks dead. Chances that it can be passed in any form appear less each day as the anti - tax climate intensifies and election day approaches. Some House members who supported it last year as an effective way to save oil by taxing its price up to world levels now denounce it as a regressive sales tax.
Some of Carter's staunchest supporters at the Capitol, such as Sen. Henry M Jackson (D-Wash), have urged him to concentrate on passing four other parts of his program that have won conference approval and to forget a tax package that they consider hopeless. Jackson said yesterday that failure to take this approach jeopardizes congressional approval of the bill to end federal price controls on newly discovered natural gas by 1985, a provision Jackson believes will save 1 million barrels of oil a day by providing more gas.
But the administration thus far has discarded this advice and is insisting on trying to save its tax program. It is difficult for Carter and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr to dump the crude oil tax, which they have insisted for 15 months is the essential foundation on which their whole energy programs rests.
Congress should be able to pass without too much difficulty three smaller energy bills on which the conferees almost have completed action: to push industry to convert from oil to coal, to encourage electric utilities to save energy, and a catchall conservation measure. The gas bill, which would end a generation of controversy, must get past a second Senate filibuster.
It is still possible to salvage an energy tax bill, but the measure may not amount to much. Tax conferees have agreed only on tax credits for homeowners who insulate their homes or install solar heat. They have agreed on a modified tax on the sale of gasoline guzzling cars, but only if the non tax conferees drop a Senate ban on gas-guzzlers. That issue is still un resolved. Both House and Senate voted portions of Carter's tax on industrial use of oil and natural gas as another tool to push conversion to coal. The conferees might be able to find a compromise on that.
Carter has threatened to impose import fees or quotas on foreign oil if Congress rejects the tax on domestic crude oil. This would further increase, by perhaps $5 per 42-gallon barrel, the price the United States pays for about half its oil.
The Senate responded by voting a ban on import fees. That was attached to an appropriation bill and may be thrashed out by a House - Senate conference this week. The White House has been warned that imposition of import fees or quotas might anger enough members of Congress to kill the natural gas agreement. Quotas or fees would be another way of persuading trading partners that America means business on energy, but at a very high price if it killed everything else.