President Carter's five-week-old wage-price guidelines program is running into some serious start-up problems, ranging from recruiting and organizational difficulties to small but significant changes in the pay and price standards.
Those involved in running the program say some of the difficulties are being resolved and insist the plan will run more smoothly in the next few weeks.
But insiders agree the initial faltering has hurt the program's image, and bolstered assertions by critics inside and outside the administration that the guidelines will prove the weak point in the new anti-inflation plan.
"What all this shows is that our main anti-inflation weapon is going to be a tight budget and money and credit policies," says one key official who was involved in planning the guidelines program. "The guidelines won't do it."
There have been these developments:
Although the guidelines program was nine weeks in the planning, many important elements either are still not resolved or have had to be revised - heightening confusion over the new effort.
Officials already have had to make important changes in the way pay and price increases were calculated under the original guidelines. And a crash effort to work out details of Carter's "wage insurance" hasn't yielded results.
Despite several attempts to lure qualified staffers, the administration has not been able to recruit a top-level labor liaison - a factor outsiders cite as an obstacle to the administration's prospects for success. Several candidates with close ties to labor have turned Carter down.
Negotiations already are under way in several big-union industries, but so far the administration's dealings with labor have been on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
Although he was widely hailed for his work at the Civil Aeronautics Board anti-inflation czar Alfred E. Kahn still hasn't gotten organized, and indeed has embarrassed top officials with his brash public statements.
Kahn made Carter bristle two weeks ago by declaring the nation was headed for "a deep, deep depression" if the guidelines program didn't work - raising eyebrows around Washington about whether he had the political savvy for the job.
And the anti-inflation chief has spent much of his first few weeks in office in public relations duties, such as speeches and congressional testimony. He still has no full-time personal staff - just two part-timers.
Although all sides agree the most powerful image maker for the program would be a prompt show of force against some corporate violator, the White House has yet to use its powers against a single firm - and may not for some time.
While enforcers have won price-restraint agreements from the steel and railroad industries, officials concede these probably would have come anyway, even if the White House had no sanctions to impose.
On the one confrontation the White House has had with an individual company, the administration found, embarrassingly, that an 8.8 percent boost in the price of Hershey bars fell squarely within its guidelines.
Admittedly, at least some of these difficulties are standard in any such broad-scale program. The Nixon administration took all of a 90-day wage-price freeze to work out its controls in 1971, and still suffered some gaffes.
Officials say at least some of the confusion may be ended early in December, when the administration publishes revised "final" regulations after a month of public comment. Several key changes already have been disclosed.
And inflation-fighters have mounted a new effort to get their house in order. After a month of answering questions and recruiting new staffers, the Council of Wage and Price Stability has begun tightening its organization.
But planners concede that fumbling could do more damage in Carter's voluntary plan because it doesn't have the force of law to back it up and because officials are working against time pressures in wage negotiations.
Some of the administration's problems may linger.
Officials say Kahn is unlikely to lure deputy budget director Bowman Cutter to be his chief staff aide in the anti-inflation program, as he had hoped. It could be weeks before he recruits key staffers.
Kahn's only other staff help has come from Dennis Rapp, a CAB lawyer who has been trudging over to the anti-inflation czar's office after a full day in his regular job. Cutter has been helping Kahn part-time.
And insiders say the anti-inflation chief has been spending much of his available time on the administration's companion effort to deregulate the trucking industry - giving little attention to the wage-price guidelines effort.
As for a quick showdown with business, officials argue that a prompt show of force is unlikely, in large part because businesses at least so far seem willing to comply initially rather than risk denial of federal contracts.
"You're not going to get a company caught in outright violation of the guidelines because they view them the same as though they were controls," one inflation-fighter insists. "Any defiance is more likely to be on the labor side."
The change in the way the guidelines are computed involve two issues: How to count health insurance and pensions costs in calculating wage increases, and when to allow firms a more liberal price standard.
Officials concede they just didn't foresee the health insurance problem when they drew up the wage guidelines. The confusion over the price standard stemmed from a fluff in initial drafting of the regulations.
Both Kahn and wage-price council director Barry Bosworth have indicated the dispute probably will be cleared up next month. The administration is expected to liberalize the wage guideline and tighten a big loop-hole affecting business.
"As far as I know, those are the only two things we really goofed on," says one official involved in the program. "That isn't bad in an effort as broad as this - for all the fuss."
"And the program's operation seems likely to run somewhat more smoothly in coming weeks. Officials at the wage-price council admit they simply were overwhelmed in the program's first days, fielding phone calls and expanding their offices.
"It's been a shock for us," one insider concedes. The council, says one official, "used to be a staff of 20 to 30, where everybody saw everyone else every day." Now, it has added 57 more staffers, and is planning for 43 more.
By some standards, it may be too early to tell how the guidelines program will fare - at least until early January, when the plan to impose sanctions against violators get fully under way and negotiations with unions begin in earnest.
For the moment, however, the consensus is that the administration has made a wobbly start with its new wage-price plan - one that analysts say it will have to work hard to overcome if the program is to be credible.