Energy provides another case of the cruel paradox working against the Carter administration. For in pushing a new energy through the tangled skein of conflicting political, regional and institutional interests, President Carter has done almost exactly as well as President Ford.
Only par for the energy course isn't good enough now. For the process of compromise with the Congress fatally intertwines energy with the crisis of confidence that threatens to engulf the whole administration.
The starting point for comparison is the energy bill submitted by Ford in 1974. It emphasized stimulating production of oil and natural gas by lifting price restrictions. As a spur to the Congress, the president began to apply levies on imported oil that had the effect of raising prices to the consumer without decontrol.
Instead of stimulating production, the Democratic Congress came up with measures favoring conservation of oil and gas. When the president began to apply import fees, the Congress worked up a rationing program and screamed that he was hurting the poor.
In the end, a compromise was struck, and in January 1976 Ford signed the Energy Conservation and Production Act. Its chief feature was a conservation provision establishing a mandatory miles-per-gallon rate for automobiles. Thanks to that measure, gasoline consumption in this country has dipped about 2 million barrels per day below the projected rise.
The mirror image of that experience has occurred under Carter. In keeping with the wishes expressed by the Democratic Congress during the Ford era, Carter introduced on March 20, 1977, an energy program that emphasized conservation.
Price controls were maintained on natural gas sold nationally, and extended to gas sold within a single state. Prices of domestically produced crude oil would be allowed to rise to international levels - thus curtailing demand somewhat. But a crude oil equalization tax would be applied at the wellhead, and rebated to the poorest users of gasoline so that there would be no windfall profits to the producer.
This time the congressional majority has emphasized rising production by more incentives to the producers. The natural-gas bill, almost totally rewritten in the Senate-House conference committee, features phased lifting of price controls with total deregulation in 1985.
Approval of the conference report faces a certain filibuster when debate begins in the Senate this week. A coalition of consumer interests, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and producer interests, including Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), is being mustered against the report. The prospect is that the administration will eventually win, but only after a long debate.
The same kind of conflict bedevils the oil equalization tax. Consumer interests want to be sure at least some of the proceeds are rebated to people who need help to pay higher gasoline prices. The producers want some of the proceeds set aside as an incentive for more exploration.
Decisive votes are not likely until after the elections. If he doesn't win then, Carter can cut imports unilaterally by either imposing an import fee or applying quotas. Alternately, he could cut a whole new deal when the present law, the law signed by Ford, expires in May of next year.
Which brings us full circle. Like Ford, Carter can probably put a new energy program into place two years after he proposed it. The character of the new program would be determined more by the Congress than by the president. As in the earlier case, there would be a cut of roughly 2 million barrels per day in the gap between domestic oil production and consumption.
So progress is plainly being made. Given the oil finds in Alaska, Mexico and off the East Coast, a shortage is not imminent. The problem is that the up-and-down nature of dealing with the Congress on energy works to deepen the lack of confidence instilled in nervous investors by the rise of inflation, the fall of the dollar, the balance-of-payments deficit and the general performance of the president himself. So, even though there is nobody in town, Carter is undoubtedly right to break his vacation and come back to Washington where he can be visibly seen doing battle for the energy program.