The cold wave, which stalled much of the country's traffic, also seems to have put the skids on Ronald Reagan's timetable for raising natural gas prices.
He was planning to announce his program for accelerated decontrol of natural gas by Jan. 20. But freezing temperatures and high winds in many states may have put the chill on the fulfillment of a campaign pledge for the time being.
Committed though he is to the unleashing of natural market forces, Reagan is extremely skittish about sending up his gas-decontrol proposal, and has already put it off twice. He is of course an ardent advocate of deregulation of all commerce. And philosophically, he regards windfall profits taxes as cruel to business.
But in the winter of his recession, he desperately needs revenues to avert a $100 billion deficit. He knows that decontrol without taxes could not pass Congress, particularly when the entire House is up for reelection, and members of his party are not eager to go out and tell the folks why the oil companies, which own 75 percent of our gas supplies, need still more money.
He is, according to observers, playing the unaccustomed role of Hamlet on the question. He is haunted by the memory of the scorn he heaped on Jimmy Carter for including a windfall profits tax in his bitterly fought deregulation of oil prices. He is haunted by a letter he wrote to an Oklahoma congressman last summer, promising to veto, "with pleasure," any decontrol bill containing a windfall tax provision.
It was in July, at the height of his summer of successes, that he made his written pledge to Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.), whose vote he needed for the tax-cut bill.
The major oil companies, at a November meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, faced reality and indicated that, in consideration of the billions that decontrol would bring them, they could accept some kind of windfall tax, one which consumer groups say they would pass on to consumers.
But the independent companies will fight windfall taxes, and so will English.
He says that if Ronald Reagan is so committed to decontrol, he can achieve it administratively, through a compliant and even eager Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has already set about giving breaks to gas producers. On Dec. 31, FERC gave a price increase for gas that is drilled at a depth of 300 feet. But, unfortunately for Reagan, FERC has no jurisdiction over "old" gas, discovered before the enactment of the Natural Gas Policy Act in 1978.
So he must go to Congress, where the Democrats are laying for him. They are anxious to redeem themselves for their "Republican" performance on the Alaska gas pipeline, voting for tolls on consumers for the construction. House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) has announced that he opposes gas decontrol with or without a windfall profits tax.
And Monday, at the legislative leadership meeting, Reagan was importuned by Rep. Delbert L. Latta (R-Ohio), conservative co-author of the Gramm-Latta budget cuts, to turn off natural gas legislation. In Toledo, that day, the temperature, with the wind-chill factor, was 65 below.
Accelerated decontrol would double the price for consumers. For people on fixed incomes, many of whom now spend a third of their money on energy, it would be ruinous. Half the country's households are heated by gas, and in this kind of gnawing cold, conservation, which is supposed to be a beneficial side-effect of higher prices, is a form of suicide. Poor old people who are wrapped in blankets and huddled over their stoves cannot turn down the heat any further without the risk of freezing to death.
Such humanitarian considerations are often brushed aside at this White House, where the producer wins out over the consumer every time. But the cold weather has focused even the ideologues, at least to the extent of delay in unveiling their no-windfall tax decontrol bill.
Some of the president's men are hinting that a windfall tax is not the total no-no of Reagan's previous rhetoric. Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan recently remarked, when reminded of the president's letter to English, that "it was not written in cement."
Says English, "Just about the only person within the administration who is insisting on keeping that commitment is the president."
But if he goes the tax route, the president will meet major skepticism about its benefits. The Carter windfall tax was destined to return higher prices to the poor in the way of weatherizing their houses and giving them energy fuel assistance. Reagan tried hard to gut both programs.
Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, Democrat of Louisiana, the largest gas-producing state, was all set to announce the Reagan decontrol program at a Shreveport energy exhibition on Wednesday. But a message came from Washington, at the height of blizzards both here and there, that the White House light had turned red. The ill winds which are blowing across the country have brought somebody good, at least for the moment.