The presidential seal was tacked to lecterns in Richmond and Portsmouth and bedford and Washington Last month, and at every stop President Carter played Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show to big oil's Satan.
Carter preached of the evils of the demon oil, of oil "ripoffs" and "charades" and oil "kickbacks" and oil lobbyists out "hoodwink" the American public.
But salvation is at hand, he said in his gospel, and it is the windfall profits tax. The details did not go to Congress until April 26, accompanied by a message in which Carter said: "A windfall profits tax is the only thing that stands between the oil companies anda huge bonanza of unearned, unnecessary and unjustified profits." These profits would come to oil companies because of his decision to lift oil price controls gradually. What happened in the days that followed was that the president, who had worked to label himself as tough on Big Oil, wound up taking political flak for not being tough enough. Liberals complained that Carter's windfall tax was more modest than they had expected, and he was accused by some of having cut it back.
The affair became a significant political problem for the president. And that was in part his own doing. For after a month of presidential stumping, people had come to know the windfall tax mainly through Carter's rhetoric and not his arithemetic.
Actually, the Projected bite of his windfall tax did not change between April 5, when he first spoke generally of it while announcing the decontrol of oil prices and his aides talked of it in a briefing and fact sheet, and April 26, when the details of the tax were finally sent to Congress. But the modest scale of the tax did not match the great expectations fanned by the tough rhetoric that had become a new foundation of Carter's Arpil speeches.
So the statistics that were made public on April 26 surprised a number of people, including experts on Capitol Hill and some members of the press.
In the terrarium of Washington politics, the surprise overthe size of the windfall proposals fed upon itself until it became part of the controversy over the entire decontrol/tax issue.
It began with the press reporting that the windfall tax was more modest than had been expected (one such article appeared in The Washington Post). Next came harsh criticism from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who charged that Carter had been "intimidated" by the oil companies into offering up just a "token" windfall tax.
"What we're dealing with here is a question of perception and credibility," says White House press secretary Jody Powell. "We did what we said we'd do, but we are widely perceived to have not done. What we said we'd do."
Today the cycle continues. The White House, stung by Kennedy's criticism, had launched a low-keyed counterattack. A letter has been drafted to memebers of Congress to set the matter straight. It is spare of rhetoric and heavy on statistics, including:
"The windfall profits tax reduces the benefits which producers would receive from each $1 in revenue from 43 cents to 29 cents."
So, by the administration's own rhetoric, its windfall profits tax accounts for only 14 cents of the reduction in oul company decontrol benefits. The rest of the total 71-cent bit out of the oil profits would come from the existing federal and state taxes. plus royalties, that the oil companies would have to pay even if a windfall tax had neve been proposed.
But this fact, although it was referred to by one official in a news briefing on April 5, became obscured in the weeks that followed as Carter began a rhetorical offensive that made windfall sound like the tax cure-all.
On April 7, just two days after his nationally televised announcement that he would gradually allow oil prices to rise by lifting controls, Carter said in Richmond: ". . . I will not allow this painful but necessary step to become an excuse for a massive ripoff ot the American people by American oil companies. That is why I will fight for a windfall profits tax. . . ."
And so it went, though talk about a crackdown on big oil and all the emphasis on windfall tax.
Carter could have put the matter in better perspective, some administration experts now concede, by lowering the level of his anti-oil rhetoric and putting the windfall tax into the context of all of the other reductions in oil revenues. He could have talked about how existing oryalties would take 14 cents out of each new dollar in oil revenues due to decontrol, and how severence taxes would take another 5 cents, and state income taxes 3 cents and federal income taxes 35 cents-a total bite of 57 cents-and that his windfall proposal would add another 14-cent reduction, leaving the oil companies with just 29 cents for each dollar.
Instead, he started at the top, talking only of his windfall profits tax.
The reason Carter decided to teach that the glass was half empty instead of half full was politics.
The president and his advisers had concluded that his hard line on big oil and emphasis on the windfall tax were necessary because:
Passage of any windfall profits tax seemed very much in doubt, according to consulations with key senators and members of Congress.
It was politically smart to sound the tough, populist line against oil companies and their profits, since he had just decided to lift controls on oil prices.
N Bonn, a year ago, Carter had promised European heads of government that he would raise the price of U. S. domestic oil to world levels by 1980. His first energy plan had proposed doing this with a crude oil equalization tax, which would have given the government all additional revenues and given the oil companies nothing. Instead, Congress gave Cater nothing.
With that route foreclosed, and with oil price controls set to expire anyway at the end of September 1981, the president and his advisers wound up deciding that the best thing to do was to begin now a gradual lifting of the controls.
Carter advisers say that a crucial factor in their decision was that none of the senators or members of Congress consulted said they thought Congress would be willing to extend the oil price controls-and if the controls were lifted suddenly in 1981 prices would rise with dangerous abruptness.
The Carter advisers emphasize that Sens. Kennedy and Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash) were among those who were consulted and who did not say they believed controls could be extended. The Carter advisers take pains to emphasize this because Jackson has since criticized Carter's decontrol plan and has introduced a bill to extend controls. Kennedy, the most vocal of Carter's oil plan critics, signed on as a cosponsor.
A spokesman for Jackson says he did tell Carter he opposed decontrol, but did not tell Carter whether he thought controls could be extended because he was not asked.
A spokesman for Kennedy says he told Carter he should wait until 1981 and then begin a phased decontrol (implicit, though apprarently never stated, there is the suggestion that some controls would have to be extended).
The Carter people also consulted on the matter of the windfall profits tax.
Politically, the White House advisers had concluded there had to be something called "windfall profits tax" that would accompany any announcement of decontrol.
The widespread perception on Capitol Hiss (based perhaps on the failure of the much-stiffer crude oil equalization tax last year) seemed to be that it would be difficult to get any windfall profits tax passed, the Carter officials say.
Carter advisers say they asked powerful oil state senators, Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La." and Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.) if they would support a windfall profits tax if the president decontrolled oil prices.
Bentsen said flatly that he would not, and Long refused to commit himself, advising the president not to try for a windfall profits tax.
The morning after Carter's April 6 energy speech, Kennedy said on the CBS Morning News that approval of Carter's windfall tax, will be "extremely hard . . . an uphill battle."
It is against this backdrop that the president and his people set out on a hard-sell campaign for the windfall profits tax. The office of communications director fashioning the rhetoric that would carry the windfall campaign, beginning in the April 5 background briefing for reporters about Carter's energy plan and continuing through a month of speeches.
While promoting windfall, Carter proclaimed at every oppurtunity that it was the Congress, not he, that had mandated decontrol of oil prices.
Meanwhile, throughout Arpil, the administration was content to see its windfall profits tax labeled as a 50 percent solution.
In the April 5 briefing for reporters, before administration officials noted that the windfall profits tax on revenues arising from decontrol would be "equal to 50 percent," and another time they called it "a 50 percent tax on windfalls."
But although the rate of the tax is 50 percent, this does not mean that the oil companies would have to pay half of the windfall profits in taxes.
The explanations, tucked into the statistics in fact sheets handed reporters that day, made it clear that what was proposed was not actually a tax on profits, but an excise tax.
But the tax came to be known by its shortland label as the "50 percent windfall profits tax" in news reports and in discussions between reporters and administration officials. And the administration spoksmen were content to allow this impression to be conveyed without setting the record straight, in this time when Carter was telling his audiences about how tough he and his windfall tax were going to be on the oil companies.
"The confusion was not confined to the uninitiated and uninformed. In the April 30 issue of the Oil and Gas Journal, an editorial talks about Carter's "50 percent tax on increased revenues.")
So it is that people who had been hearing and reading about a "50 percent windfall profits tax" were somewhat surprised on April 26, when the administration's statistics showed that the difference between the oil companies' take without the windfall tax and the companies' take with it was just 14 cents on every dollar.
Now there is widespread sentiment on Capitol Hill that Congress will enact a version of Carter's windfall profits tax after all-and there are a number of influential people, including House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who say it can be made even tougher.
For this the president's advisers claim credit in behalf of their noss. But if it is true that Carter brought this credit upon himself with his tough windfall campaign, he bears the responsibility for some fo the criticism that has come his way.
EPILOGUE: A White House adviser sat in his spacious office the other day and pondered whether there was a common perspective to explain the divergent views of the administration and the media on the windfall tax.
"The idea that reporters were misled because they listened to our rhetoric but did not look at our fact sheets is a little like when we call up a reporter and complain about a headline without having read all the way through the story," the Carter adviser said. "Reporters always jump on us about how wrong we are then-and I admit that I've never completely bought that line when they tell it to me.
"But now I'm beginning to think maybe there's somthing to it." CAPTION:
Picture, President Carter Begins a busy day in Los Angeles by jogging with his host, Stephen Rodriguez, AP