White House press secretary Jody Powell yesterday reiterated President Carter's opposition to mandatory wage and price controls and blamed both loose-mouthed administration officials and news organizations for periodic reports suggesting a possible change in that policy.
Powell was responding to a statement Monday by Barry P. Bosworth, director of the Council on Wage and Price Controls, that the administration may consider mandatory wage and price controls as a "potential option" next year if inflation worsens.
Without naming Bosworth, Powell said he was "not absolving people in the administration from full responsibility" for any confusion caused by their public statements.
But he added that news organizations that report on those officials must also share the responsibility.
"We have found over and over that if any statement can be screwed up and be reported in a way that is disquieting to the public and the economy, it will be screwed up," Powell said.
He made the comment about news organizations after conceding that Bosworth and the often outspoken chairman of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, Alfred E. Kahn, have been warned by the White House to be more careful in their public pronouncements.
Asked if Kahn and Bosworth had been told to keep their mouths shut, Powell replied, "I don't know if it was conveyed quite that way."
Under questioning on the subject of inflation, Powell said the administration is considering asking Congress for authority to withhold government contracts from firms that refuse to comply with the existing voluntary wage and price guidelines.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that the president lacked authority to withhold government contracts as a method to achieve compliance with the voluntary guidelines. The administration is appealing that ruling, and Powell said the White House "is confident of our legal position."
But if the appeal fails, he added, "we could establish in law through legislation the right to use this and other measures to persuade people to be patriotic."
The U.S. Court of Appeals, acting with unusual speed, yesterday set June 13 to hear the appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Barrington Parker's decision on the guidelines program. The case will be heard by a full panel of nine Appeals Court judges, rather than the customary three-judge panel, a decision that government lawyers said reflected the importance of the case.
Parker has temporarily stayed his ruling pending the appeal, meaning that, technically, the administration is still free to threaten firms that do not cooperate with the guidelines with loss of government contracts.
Parker's ruling, a severe blow to the already shaky guidelines program, resulted from a suit against the guidelines brought by the AFL-CIO.
Carter has consistently opposed mandatory wage and price controls since before he took office, arguing that they are unworkable and would only create a new government bureaucracy to enforce them. But with the voluntary anti-inflation program having little apparent effect on the rate of inflation, questions continue to arise about the use of controls as a last resort.
Adding to such speculation are comments such as those made by Bosworth in a taped television interview last week with the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington-based business reporting and research firm.
In the interview, which became public Monday, Bosworth was quoted as saying he would be willing to reconsider his opposition to controls if "the general public would support them" and if he thought they were needed to combat a wage-price explosion in industry.
Bosworth's comments were quickly followed up by a series of qualifiers by other administration officials and finally a flat rejection by the president's chief spokesman yesterday.
"The president has made clear that there will be no controls," Powell said. "That is and will remain the president's position."