The House Commerce Committee yesterday dealt a sharp blow to President Carter's standby plan to save energy, while the president's oil price decontrol and "windfall" profits tax package drew fresh criticism.
The Commerce Committee disapproved Carter's request for authority to order weekend closing of gasoline stations and to ban lighting of billboards and other outdoor advertising. On the basis of those votes, it is likely the committee also will reject standby gasoline rationing powers today.
The only part of Carter's plan supported by the committee would empower him to set limits on thermostatsettings in nonresidential buildings.
Meanwhile, Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger ran into opposition from liberals on a Commerce subcommittee who questioned whether the proposed oil profits tax would capture 50 percent of the estimated $15 million in new revenues generated by decontrol.
The criticism coincided with a report by Ralph Nader's Tax Reform Research Group, which said the proposed tax would "pick up only $3-4 billion" of the new revenues, or about 20 percent.
Calling President Carter's description of the windfall profits tax "misleading and incorrect," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said, "It cannot be accurately described as a 50 percent windfall profits tax."
Markey said that under one provision of the administration's complex decontrol proposal, up to 77 percent of the oil revenues the companies would earn as "old" oil prices-now about $6 a barrel-were raised to the nearly $13 a barrel "new" oil price, would not be taxed.
Afterward, Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.", another liberal committee member, argued that some categories of oil will escape part of the bite of the proposed tax.
The conservation plans, which the president submitted last month in response to a congressional directive, must be approved by both House by May 11 or will die. The House committee action does not kill the two parts it disapproved. The outdoor lighting plan was sent to the House floor with a recommendation that it be disapproved. And any supporter can demand a House vote on the gas station closing plan. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee that recommended its approval, said he will do so.
But Dingell said he felt it would be difficult to persuade the House to approve a plan rejected by the committee which considered it. And after yesterday's votes he said "the signs do not augur well" for committee approval of stanby gasoline rationing powers.
The plans were opposed almost unanimously by committee Republicans led by Rep. Clarence Brown (R-Ohio), who said they would impose an inequitable burden on consumbers, would disrupt the economy and be costly to enforce while saving very little oil.
The administration estimated the ban on outside advertising lights would save only 4,000 barrels of oil a day (the United States imports about a billion barrels a day). Several usually loyal Democrats opposed this as a "ridiculous symbol" that would accomplish nothing of substance. The committee sent it to the House with a recommendation of disapproval.
To meet state opposition, the gas station closing plan had been amended by the administration to permit alternative state plans that would also reduce gasoline sales. But the committee rejected it, 26 to 15, and refused even to send it to the floor without recommendation by a vote of 23 to 19.
The Senate Energy Committee has also approved the thermostat limit plan and rejected the outdoor lighting plan. It is scheduled to vote Thursday on gas station closing and standby gas rationing powers.
Schlesinger answered critics on the Commerce energy and power subcommittee saying the windfall profits tax, in effect, would work as the president has described it. "Between now and 1981 total revenue for producers will increase about $15 billion and about $7 billion would be returned (to the government) as taxes," Schlesinger said.
After the hearing an Energy Department spokesman said after all taxes are paid, "the companies would end up with about 30 percent of the windfall."
Schlesinger told the committee the administration plan would provide "equity" for consumers, meet the president's commitment at the Bonn Summit to raise domestic oil prices to world levels, and spur energy production and conservation.
In an exchange with Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), another opponent of oil decontrol, the secretary also said the president had no choice to phasing out controls because of opposition in Congress to extending oil price controls beyond October 1981 when they expire.
Not all subcommittee members were critical of the Carter decontrol plan. Rep Philip Gramm (D-Tex.), Rep. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), and Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.) all expressed support for the administration program. Loeffler, who has been critical of the Energy Department's regulatory programs in the past, told Schlesinger, "I would like to extend congratulation to you for decontrol from the state of Texas."
In response to a question from Wirth, Schlesinger said that as many as 1,000 jobs in ODE's Economic Regulatory Administration could be eliminated as a result of scrapping controls. Some of these DOE employes, however, would continue to work in other regulatory programs such as coal, Schlesinger said. CAPTION: Picture, Dingell and Schlesinger confer before committee hearing on energy proposals. By James K.W. Atherton-The Washington Post