Should homeowners get additional tax breaks to encourage installation of energy-saving equipment and materials?

That question is the center of controversy this month as both the House and Senate begin consideration of a series of such measures.

The Senate Finance Committee already has approved doubling the present tax credit for installation of home solar energy equipment and is hoping to push through additional tax breaks before its work is over.

And the House Ways and Means Committee is considering a spate of new tax breaks for homeowners covering everything from installation of home insulation to the purchase of wood-burning stoves.

Why spend billions of dollars in federal money to finance a tax credit for solar energy equipment when the homeowner already is benefitting from it financially?

And besides, the enactment of a tax "incentive" often works out perversely, actually hurting homeowners, rather than helping them.

The home insulation tax credit that Congress enacted last year, for example, spurred demand for insulation products so much that it created a shortage, sending prices soaring far beyond where they would have been otherwise.

There also were reports that suppliers were trying to meet the extra demand by compromising on quality materials. Some home remodelers even were using old newspapers as insulation.

Together, the tax writeoffs could cost the Treasury billions of dollars in lost revenues -- increasing the federal budget deficit.

Is it worth it?

Ask most homeowners, and the answer is a resounding "yes" -- a message that hasn't been lost on lawmakers here.

Capitol Hill offices report that constituent mail in favor of the writeoffs continues to be high. Some homeowners seem almost to demand the tax breaks as a matter of right.

But others familiar with the tax situation argue that the tax incentives aren't needed -- and may be a waste of money.

For one thing, with energy prices now so high, installing energy-saving equipment already saves taxpayers sizeable sums of money, and ought to be its own reward, these experts argue.

Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) told the finance panel last week that "every credit we give for what otherwise might be done anyway costs the government money."