In the next six weeks, Congress is likely to pass three or four showy energy bills, and when members go home for Christmas, President Carter and the leadership will be warmly congratulating each other on their energy victories.
But how much these bills will help in cutting U.S. energy consumption and oil imports is a subject for skepticism.
Congress' pattern of response to the national energy problem has become fairly clear.
It is to give money to people and sometimes create new agencies but not to take chances or inflict pain. It is all strained carrots and no sticks.
Consider the record:
Carter said earlier this year that if all else failed he would move to limit oil imports directly, by imposing import quotas. The Senate responded last week by taking away part of his power to impose quotas.
The House and Senate also winced at giving Carter the unrestricted power he sought to impose gasoline rationing to cope with energy emergencies. The bill that finally passed makes any rationing plan subject to future congressional approval.
Congress has also refused to restrict consumption directly in other ways. It said no to a proposal to make people leave their cars home one day a week; no to legislation to make businesses turn off billboards, neon signs and interior lights at night; almost no (in a House vote this year) to legislation the last Congress passed limiting temperatures in public buildings to 65 degrees in winter and 80 in summer.
Congress has also flinched when asked to set very demanding miles-per-gallon standards for new U.S. cars.
And Congress has refused to restrict energy use by raising prices. It declined itself to take price controls off U.S. oil (though it did vote to let Carter take the step and the blame). There is also some question about how heavy a "windfall profits" tax it will not impose on the oil companies to recapture some of the proceeds of this removal of oil price controls.
Having declined to do all these things, what is Congress now doing?
The first bill it is likely to pass now is an appropriations measure giving special energy aid to the poor to help pay heating bills this winter.
Then it seems likely to approve the Energy Mobilization Board the president has asked for to cut red tape in large energy construction projects, particularly synthetic fuel plants. Both houses has passed this bill now, though in somewhat different forms.
Congress also seems likely to give some money to energy producers to help produce these synfuels. How much it will give them remains in doubt -- the Senate is debating this subject this week. Also in doubt is whether it will set up a trust fund and the Synthetic Fuels Corp. (originally called the Energy Security Corp.) as Carter has asked to select the worthy projects and dole out money.
The Synthetic Fuels Corp. and Energy Mobilization Board come on top of the Department of Energy that Carter and Congress created only two years ago -- and with which Congress now seems disenchanted.
The bill on the Senate floor that would give synfuel aid to producers is a balanced one: it would give various forms of aid to energy consumers as well.
Senators from consuming states insisted on this.
So now this bill contains $5 billion in home "weatherization" assistance, that would come on top of home insulation tax credits Congress also voted not too long ago.
The chosen congressional weapon for fighting the oil cartel is -- storm windows.