Not since Congress took its first bite out of our paychecks with the income tax more than a half-century ago has it faced such a tantalizing feast.
Regardless of whether Congress nibbles or gorges itself, a groaning board of oil riches will shape the national diet for at least a decade -- perhaps even as long as the larder lasts.
The table was laid out earlier this year when President Carter began lifting controls from crude oil prices to discourage consumption, paving the way for huge increases in domestic oil revenues.
With consumers paying the cost of decontrol through higher oil prices, Carter proposed that Congress recycle a major portion of the proceeds for public use, principally for energy-related purposes.
Now Congress appears pointed in the direction of a new tax that would take $227.3 billion of the $1 trillion that decontrol is expected to produce during the next decade. This represents a roughly 50-50 split between the government and the oil industry after other taxes and costs.
Carter first proposed the tax for its energy implications, not as a revenue-raising device..
But now it is also becoming -- thanks in large part to OPEC-inspired price increases -- a principal prop for the federal budget during the 1980s and perhaps longer.
Within a few years, it would be one of the largest single federal taxes -- well behind the income and Social Security taxes but comparable to all existing federal excise taxes. Over the decade, it would raise as much as the fedreal government's total income from 1789 to the early 1940s, according to Senate Budget Committee computations.
Some lawmakers are already mentally disposing of the proceeds, including more than $300 billion in increased income tax revenue over the decade as well as the extra billions that the new levy will raise.
A favorite project is rollback of the big Social Security tax increase that is scheduled for 1981. Putting the federal budget back in the black is another. Liberal Democrats see visions of national health insurance and and other social programs, while Republicans view the "windfall" as all the more reason for an overall spending ceiling and a general tax cut.
There is also doubt -- hope in some quarters, fear in others -- that the tax will ever be terminated so long as it is producing like a gusher and Congress is hooked on the taste of oil dollars. Once the government is spending the money it is unlikely to shut off the spigot, many lawmakers say.
The Senate bill would phase out the tax after it produced $189 billion, terminating it entirely at $214 billion. The theory is that this would happen in the mid-1990s, although it could occur a lot sooner if world crude oil prices continue to soar. The House bill woule keep the tax indefinitely, although newly discovered oil would be exempt in 1990, reducing the yield by about one-third at that point. However, there is nothing to prevent Congress from extending the tax indefinitely at any time.
"It's almost unavoidable that it will become a permanent tax," said Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in an interview last week. There will be revenue enough not only for energy development projects, he said, but for purposes as varied as natinal defense and aid to the needy -- which just about spans the political spectrum in the Congress.
Senate Energy Commission Chairman Henry J. Jackson (D-Wash.) has predicted that Congress will be redoing the oil tax as early as next year.
Among those who oppose heavy reliance on the oil tax the outlook is mixed.
Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.) argues that the demand for spurs to production, as opposed to taxation of producers, will grow in the 1980s as energy problems mount and domestic oil supplies diminsh.
But Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), while frowning on using the oil tax as a "back-door" way of financing new spending programs, acknowledges that it could very well be here to stay.
The $227.3 billion figure represents a split-the-difference compromise by House and Senate conferees on the overall size of the tax, with all other decisions left until next year.
Critically important details governing how the money would be raised will not be hammered out until after the conferees return from their Christmas recess, probably the week before Congress reconvenes on Jan. 22.
Regardless of how the precise numbers turn out, a comparison of revenue projections with existing tax revenues illustrates that tax's potential.
The yield would start out small -- roughly $8 billion under the House bill and $6.3 billion under the Senate bill in 1980. The annual figures would rise to $36.5 billion under the House bill and $18 billion under the Senate bill by 1990.
By way of contrast, federal gasoline taxes were expected to raise $4.6 billion this year. Estate and gift taxes: $5.7 billion. Custom duties: $7.5 billion.
Among the biggest money-raisers, the individual income tax was projected at $203 billion, corporate income taxes at $70 billion and Social Security taxes at $141 billion.
During Senate debate, Budget Committee Chairman Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) stated the case for the oil tax as the revenue-raiser of the coming decade.
"We have mortgaged our future," he said, and without a stronger tax than the Senate was then considering "we just cannot make the payments." The outcome of the tax debate, he said, would determine "nothing less than the character of American society in the decade of the 1980s."
As Senate conservatives denounced this as fiscal heresy, Finance Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) put it in his own oil-state prospective. c"The government," he said without fear of contradiction, "did not quite get it all."