President or Congress: Who's boss?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Who's running Washington? While European governments tax petroleum $1 to $2 a gallon, Democratic Congress has overwhelmingly defeated President Carter's proposal for a 10 -cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline at the pump.

The import fee struggle is only one continuing battle here:

* President Carter and Congress are presently dead-locked over the amount of money to spend for defense in the new budget.

Recommended: High gas prices: what presidential candidates say they'll do about it

* Mr. Carter's draft registration plan faces a Senate filibuster that could delay or kill it.

* The $5 billion foreign aid authorization bill for fiscal 1981 is in trouble -- the House threatens crippling amendments. The $8.1 billion foreign aid bill for fiscal 1980, which ends in less than four months, remains unenacted.

All this lies in contrast to events in Japan, where the Prime Minister dissolved the Diet (Parliament) May 19 after a vote of no-confidence three days before. a national election will take place June 22. It is a swift, dramatic, immediate test of who's in charge. There is no such test in Washington.

Doubts about US leadership and resolve are growing among NATO allies, reports indicate, along with a chronic inability to understand the unique American system of separation of powers.

Uncertainty has increased since the Afghanistan and Iran crises and the continuing unresolved Israeli-Egyptian quarrel. Most allies had expected the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) to be ratified quickly after it was negotiated by President Carter and approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But such a treaty can be vetoed by 34 senators, and adminsitration leaders delayed bringing it to a vote. Europeans again asked, Who's in charge? It was after protracted SALT II delay that Moscow launched the Afghanistan invasion, precipitating the present confrontation.

The test of America's willingness to sacrifice on petroleum prices, as Europe has done, is the test for many of us determination. Walter J. Levy, internationally recognized authority on oil, declared in February, "There is no European country where the gas tax is under $1 a gallon, and in many of them it's $2 and $2.50." He added that "a high tax on gasoline is an accepted fact of life in practically every industrial country."

Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter all have attempted to enact a petroleum import policy over the past seven years, but with only limited success. The most spectacular rebuff from Congress now comes to Mr. Carter who, June 4, saw the House vote 367 to 30 against his proposed oil fee, and the Senate, 73 to 16. Hostility by voters to a dime-a-gallon federal tax undoubtedly plays a major part, even as President Carter vainly calls for national self-sacrifice.

Ronald Reagan, The apparent Republican presidential candidate, in a May 29 speech at Columbus, Ohio, ridiculed conservation as a key to energy shortage. The only answer, he said, is increasing domestic energy production.

Mr. Carter announced March 14: "I am exercising my president authority to impose a gasoline conservation fee on imported oil." His authority to do this was immediately challenged in federal courts where a case is pending.

Unlike most presidents with a program as sweeping as this, Mr. Carter did not make a big follow-up campaign to persuade the public. Since this is an election year, TV time might have been regarded as a campaign expense. MR. Carter could have introduced the program at a joint session of Congress, which is a major publicity tool for presidents. At the time, however, he was limiting activity in an announced effort to focus attention on the American hostages in Iran.

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