Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris last Friday canceled congressional testimony she was to have delivered yesterday after the White House had objected to portions of it.
Harris was scheduled to appear before the House Banking Committee yesterday to discuss the nation's monetary policy and its effect on housing construction.
But on Friday, during routine clearance of the testimony, White House economic advisers raised objections to some of what she intended to say. Rather than alter the testimony on such short notice, she informed the committee she would not appear, her spokesman said.
Both sides sought to play down the cancellation, describing it as a routine exercise of White House clearance over policy statements from its officials.
But the episode accentuated the Carter administration's hardening determination to "speak in one voice" and avoid open policy disagreements.
Neither Harris nor the White House would describe the substance of the disagreement. Harris spokesman Bill Wise said it concerned "phrasing" and "articulation" and represented no "great crisis" in White House relations with HUD.
Staff members of the House Banking Committee said Harris was expected to focus on the negative impact on homes sales and construction of high interest rates recently imposed by the Federal Reserve Board (Fed).
Further, she was expected to criticize the lack of consideration given to such housing issues by monetary policymakers at the Fed. and elsewhere in government
In recent weeks, the White House has tried to smooth relations with Federal Chairman G. William Miller. Other administration officials earlier had sharply criticized the central bank for raising short-term interest rates by a percentage point since late April.
Presidential inflation counselor Robert S. Strauss had warned that the higher rates not only make it more difficult to fight inflation but threaten to choke economic expansion.
Last month, Miller moved closer to the administration position and held out hope in congressional testimony that the interest rate spiral might be near and end.
Harris sent her prepared testimony to the White House on Friday afternoon, Wise said yesterday. He said there was "some concern" among the president's domestic policy and economic advisers "about the articulation of the position."
Altering the prepared testimony at that time would have involved "a great deal of back and forth," he said. Because Harris was simultaneously due at a Cabinet meeting yesterday and because she was tied up in the departmental budget process, she simply informed the committee she would not appear.
"I see it as a fairly ordinary occurence," he said. "Other events have caused it to be blown out of proportion."
The "other events" include the decision by White House media advisers two weeks ago to cancel a scheduled network television appearance by presidential aide Midze Costanza. Costanza subsequently resigned.
The White House, concerned about the appearance of disunity within the administration in policy matters, has been clearing all major public appearances by staff members and cabinet officials.
Presidential press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday that the Harris episode was not the result of any new White House policy. Clearing testimony has "been a general practice here" for years, he said.
Powell said it "wasn't a case of not being able to reach agreement on a matter of policy" that prompted Harris to cancel her testimony.