Two months after President Jimmy Carter went on nationwide television to declare that the energy crisis posed a clear and present danger" to the United States, Congress finally acted last week on one part of his four-cornered package of corrective legislation. Key energy spokesmen from the House of Representatives and the Senate agreed to a bill giving the president the power to ration gasoline and filling a void that became painfully evident last spring, when motorists had to line up for two and three hours to fill up after Iranian production of oil was cut back.
But the bill contains enough catches to win a Gold Glove. First, the president must draw up a rationing plan acceptable to Congress. Then, he may implement it only if Congress accepts, or if the demand for gasoline exceeds the supply by 20 per cent-a shortage that would be cata strophic. (After the Iranian cutbacks, de mand was estimated to exceed supply by just five per cent.) Even then, implementa tion of the rationing plan could be vetoed by either the House or the Senate. "It
seems," commented one energy depart ment official, `that no one trusts the president." But at least the rationing legislation is to be approved. The three other major bills are still bogged down in the congressional swamp. A rundown: • Windfall profits tax. To compensate for deregulating the prices of crude oil and natural gas, Carter has proposed a special tax on the resulting "windfall" gain to pe troteum companies. The tax would raise an estimated $142 billion over 10 years to be spent on the development of new sources of energy, expansion of mass transit and programs for low-income groups to offset higher fuel prices. The House approved the tax more or less as Carter proposed it. But it is now receiving intense scrutiny from the Senate finance committee, chaired by Sén ator Russell Long, son of the infamous Huey Long. He represents Louisiana, a ma jor petroleum-producing state, and owns $1.2 million worth of oil and gas properties himself. No one expects the proposed tax to survive intact. • Energy Security Corporation. Car ter proposed establishing a Petro-Canada like corporation that would invest in such synthetic-fuel projects as producing gas from coal and the processing of oil shale. Its proposed budget-$88 billion over 10
years-would be financed by the windfall profits tax. Thus its fate is linked to the rather uncertain future of that tax. It is also threatened by legislation out of the House and the Senate banking committee, which would encourage synthetic-fuel develop ment without recourse to a governmentowned corporation. The Senate energy committee, which is due to deal with the subject this week, is more sympathetic to Carter's proposal but wants a scaled down version with an initial budget of no more than $30 billion. Carter, in an effort to salvage something, has agreed to this compromise.
• Energy Mobilization Board. Frustrated by the red tape holding up important energy projects, Carter proposed a board that would be empowered to hurry up the regulatory process. The Senate energy committee and Flouse interior committee agreed to the proposal, but the House commerce committee went even further, recommending a board with power to overrule health and environmental laws. The differences have yet to be reconciled.
In a bid to break the energy logjam, Carter has been inviting scores of congressmen to the White House for private talks. He has also been taking his message directly to the people in speeches and “town meetings.” But, just as many Canadians refuse to believe there is a constitutional crisis in their country, many Americans cling to the belief that the energy crisis is a myth. And without public pressure, Congress is more susceptible to the special-interest lobbies.
Carter’s low standing in the polls, too, will make it more difficult for him to get his way because congressional leaders will view him as a lame-duck president who can be crossed. The only solace for him is the knowledge that the same polls show the people think even less of Congress than they do of his presidency.
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