In sharp contrast to what most Americans believe, members of the House of Representatives are overwhelmingly convinced that the energy shortage is real and not contrived by the oil companies, according to a new Washington Post poll.
The legislators see the crisis as so severe, in fact, that two of every three House members feel that during the next decade the United States has at least a 50-50 chance of experiencing sharp political, social and economic upheaval brought on by a shortage of energy.
Yet House members give both themselves and President Carter negative ratings for their handling of the energy problem.
The clear implicaion of these poll findings and the volunteered comments from various representatives is that the House, on the whole, does not believe the government will be able to avert a future crisis in which the nation is severely jarred by oil shortages.
"The answer to the energy problem cannot be found by Congress, the president, or any sector of society," said Rep. Ken Holland (D-S.C.). "We are going through a difficult time and there will be upheaval before we solve these problems."
In all, 352 representatives or their aides, representing 81 percent of the House membership, were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 24 to Nov. 1.
Each was asked a uniform set of six questions ranging from whether there is a genuine energy shortage to what the government might do in dealing with the oil-producing nations.
Possibly the most striking finding is the near unanimity among House members that an energy shortage does indeed exist despite the public's skepticism. Seventy-eight percent of those interviewed said there is a shortage; 12 percent said there is no shortage; 10 percent offered no opinion.
By contrast, even at the height of last spring's crisis, when many motorists had to wait hours in line for gasoline, only a minority of the public believed there was a true energy shortage. Polls continue to show that fewer than 40 percent of the public believes energy to be in short supply. Most people still blame the major oil companies and the oil-producing nations for contriving crises to boost prices.
"The energy problem is real, although most people don't believe it," commented Rep. Arlen Erdahl (R-Minn.)
Remarks like that were voiced repeatedly. "There's no quick solution to the problem; it's a long-term crisis for our country," said Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.).
Some members of Congress are optimistic -- but very few. The picture that House members draw of the energy problem in the United States in the 1980s can be described as gloomy, at best.
The Post asked this question: "Over the next 10 years, how likely does the representative think it is that the United States will undergo sharp political, social and economic upheaval brought on by a shortage of energy: Would the representative say such upheaval is almost certain to occur, that it probably will occur, that the chances are 50-50, or that such upheaval probably will not occur, or that it is almost certain that such upheaval will not occur?"
A total of 14 percent said such upheaval is almost certain to occur (with a few saying it has occurred already), 23 percent said it probably will occur; 25 percent said the chances are 50-50; 27 percent said it probably will not occur; 5 percent offered no opinion; only 6 percent said upheaval would almost certainly not occur.
Congress members are not generally known as self-doubters or leaders in self-criticism, but the poll reveals that they give themselves surprisingly low marks in their handling of energy problems.
The representatives were asked to rate President Carter on a scale of 0 to 10 for his handling of the energy problem. Then they were asked to rate the House's record.
Carter's rating came to a 4.1 -- a negative rating, and very close to the rating assigned him by the general public when asked a similar question in a Washington Post poll earlier this year. But the House members gave themselves a 4.3 rating -- only marginally higher than they rated carter.
Interestingly, Democrats interviewed gave both Carter and the House similar ratings of 4.9; lower assessments by Republicans accounted for the lower overall scores of Carter and the legislative body.
A partisan split toward Carter was apparent in a number of comments volunteered by House members, with some Republicans criticizing the administration but some Democrats going out of their way to praise the president.
Republican Clarence J. Brown of Ohio said Congress has been slow to act on energy but he blamed it on "the lack of leadership of the president to move to encourage domestic production of energy sources."
Democrat Mike Lowry of Washington said the nation failed to develop alternate energy sources, such as solar energy, over a 30-year period. "President Carter from the first made the attempt and Congress has hindered him," Lowry said.
"The public ought to be aware that the president has proposed some logical energy measures which the house has passed, but the Senate has torn them apart," said Rep. Charles Whitley (D-N.C.).
Also criticizing the Senate was Wisconsin Democrat Robert W. Kastenmeier. "The Senate should be rated as well," he said. "The Senate refused to pass President Carter's 1977 legislation. The Senate would be 0 or 1 on a scale."
Two questions in the poll dealt with congressional attitudes toward U.S. posture in the Middle East.
The first was a measure of the belligerency level in the House, asking whether members agreed or disagreed that "the United States should take all steps, including the use of force if necessary, to insure that we have an adequate supply of oil from the Middle East."
The House doesn't seem very belligerent. Seventy-two percent of those interviewed said they disagreed with the statement. Often they disagreed vehemently. "Intervention is not an option," one congressman told an interviewer. Only 16 percent said they would approve the use of force to obtain Mideast oil if necessary, and 12 percent said they weren't sure.
A similar split occurred when the representatives were asked whether they agreed or disagreed that "the United States should work more closely with OPEC nations to insure an adequate supply of oil, even if that means lessening our ties to Israel." Sixty-seven percent disagreed; 19 percent agreed; 14 percent said they were not sure.
Since the resignation of Andrew Young as United States ambassador, there has been repeated discussion of a possible rift between blacks and Jews over Mideast policy and other issues. But the poll does not suggest that this public debate has had much impact on policy choices. Twelve of the House's 17 black members or their aides were interviewed; only one agreed that the United States should lesson its ties to Israel if that meant insuring a supply of oil from the Arab nations.
In all, 112 of the interviews were conducted with representatives and the rest with aides who said they could speak authoritatively for their bosses.
Interviewing for The Post was conducted by the Washington firm of Smith, Bloomingdale and Hees.