WAshington — President Carter's battered oil import fee has become the focal point of much deeper issued agitating the United States. Among them: * Should Americans be asked to shell out more tax money, in order to balance the federal budget?
* Can the fiscal 1981 budget be balanced at all, when broad groups of Americans are demanding higher defense outlays and more money to help the poor, jobless, and disadvantaged?
* Is it right to reduce oil imports by charging American families ever-higher prices for the energy they burn?
All these issues are touched, directly or indirectly, by the decisive action of Congress in denying Mr. Carter authority to impose a $4.62 cent fee on each barrel of imported oil.
The President promises a veto. But lopsided margins in both chambers against the fee indicate that, for the first time in Mr. Carter's presidency, Congress will override his veto.
That would kill the import levy, leaving in its wake a number of thorny issues to be threshed out by government.
By his own description, Mr. Carter had two purposes in mind, when he told Congress and the people he would impose the fee: He wanted to raise the pump price of gasoline by 10 cents a gallon, thereby reducing oil imports; and he sought to build up a $10.3 billion reserve kitty, to be used to help balance the 1981 budget if needed.
If this were not needed, The President suggested, the money might be used to finance a 1981 tax cut.
As unemployment rose swiftly this spring, it seemed increasingly clear that the 1981 budget could not be balanced without throwing the $10.3 billion kitty into the breach, and perhaps not even then.
For lawmakers, a question arose: With social security taxes due to rise sharply next year, was it fair -- or politically smart in an election year -- to hit Americans with an additional tax now?
Hiking gasoline prices by 10 cents gallon also would boost the consumer price index, to some extent offseting Mr. Carter's program to fight inflation.
Congressional opposition to the fee was bolstered by a federal court ruling that the President lacked authority to apply an import fee to a domestic product , in this case gasoline. The White House is appealing the verdict.
Meanwhile, enthusiasm for a balanced budget in any case began to falter, as recession put more Americans out of work. Liberals in Congress argued that the budget could be balanced only by imposing cruel burdens on the jobless and poor.
Social programs of various sorts, in other words, would have to be trimmed to accommodate both higher defense outlays and anti-recessionary spending required by law.
Raising the cost of gasoline, the argument ran, would be especially unfair, since many low-income Americans drive old gas-guzzlers and live far from their places of work.
Whether the 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will raise oil prices on its own, as administration officials warn, remains to be seen.
On June 9, OPEC meets in Algiers to set oil prices for the rest of 1980. Cartel price hikes so far this year will add 3 to 4 cents a gallon to the US retail cost of gasoline, heating oil, and other petroleum products.
Congress, Mr. Carter says, is sending a "clear signal" to oil-producing and consuming nations that the US is not serious about energy conservation. Americans, he says, will pay "much higher prices in the future" for imported oil.
The import fee, according to the White House, might have reduced US imports of foreign oil by 100,000 barrels a day, cutting the amount of money paid to foreign producers by roughly $3.2 million daily.
Even without the fee, reports the US Department of Energy, the US is importing about 17 percent less oil than it did in the comparable period a year ago.