SINCE LAST SPRING, the country's energy conscience has been dulled by the enervated atmosphere of stalemate in the Congress. As tunnel-visioned congressional partisans gradually weakened President Carter's courageous but by no means all-encompassing proposal to cut domestic consumption of petroleum, the public reacted with little more than yawns, and it now appears that little fuss would be raised outside of the White House if Congress passed no energy bill at all. The cautious tones of compromise now sounding on the Hill stand in stark contrast to Carter's battle cry of eight months ago, so the public's disappointment and boredom are understandable.
Yet the only western nation that has taken no constructive steps to cut domestic oil consumption since the 1973 oil embargo can no longer afford to put off reform. While the energy proposal now emerging from Congress is weak in many ways, it is certainly better than nothing; the important thing now is not to let past losses stand in the way of working to see that the strongest possible energy bill is passed.
The Carter administration is under fire: from the right for asking businesses to make larger sacrifices and from the left for Vice-President Mondale's ill-advised interference in the filibuster designed to block efforts to raise the ceiling on natural gas prices--an effort the administration also opposed. That this bickering and confusion have caused the administration to lose faith in its ability to work with a feisty Congress was shown in a remark by energy chief James R. Schlesinger '50 to the effect that the administration would be willing to compromise still further by giving increased tax credits to industries that convert to coal, returning a larger portion of revenues from the proposed energy tax to the oil industry, and allowing regulated natural gas prices to rise to $2.00 per thousand cubic feet instead of the proposed $1.75 ceiling.
Such premature concessions are unwarranted. Business's share of energy tax rebates is already substantially higher than in Carter's original proposal, and even the $1.75 for regulated natural gas is three times the current regulated price.
So while the Carter administration should be willing to compromise when absolutely necessary, it should not give up its leadership role at this crucial point in negotiations and settlement. Its evident willingness to push hard for a wellhead tax on domestic crude oil, increased taxes for businesses using gas and oil, and extension of price controls to intra-state supplies of natural gas is laudable and necessary.
But Carter should not allow other elements simply to fall prey to fatigue and ennui. Since Congress apparently is unwilling to take steps that are commonly recognized as essential because of the political damage that might result from requiring the public to make sacrifices, the Carter administration must represent the interests of long-term rational planning over petty short-sightedness. The requirements of a sound national energy policy demand the quickest and most effective action possible.