CONGRESS is scurrying to finish business on the country's well-known need for an energy policy. Many Americans have been thinking less about the issue since Saddam Hussein left Kuwait, but energy is still vitally important to the United States economy and environment - and still mishandled by Congress. Current legislation may represent Congress's best effort - which suggests that the federal government is incapable of resolving the energy issue.
In meetings held nationwide over the last few years to solicit citizen input into the national energy strategy, the most frequent observation was that the nation needs more efficient use of energy.
Efficiency does not mean discomfort. It means modernizing homes and businesses to save money and compete in overseas markets. Japan and Germany use half as much energy to produce goods as the US does, reducing their cost of production.
It also means addressing poor air quality, global warming, radioactive waste, ozone-layer depletion, and other energy-related threats.
Instead of emphasizing energy efficiency and a rapid development of solar, wind, and other clean, unlimited sources of energy, President Bush's energy strategy - sponsored in Congress by Sens. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana and Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming - was another special-interest grab bag, with only modest provisions for encouraging energy efficiency and renewable energy.
The Johnston-Wallop bill proposed severe limitations on citizen participation in the licensing of nuclear power plants - essential in discovering and correcting dangerous flaws in nuclear reactors.
Johnston-Wallop also proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. How much oil is there is uncertain, but drilling for a finite amount in a pristine natural area and using it poorly increases harm to the environment and stalls real alternatives to dependence on unstable foreign sources of energy.
Johnston-Wallop died, under combined pressure from environmental organizations opposed to oil drilling in Alaska and automobile manufacturers opposed to even the weak, vague provisions for higher automobile efficiency.
To appease the opposition, Johnston-Wallop was stripped of the drilling provisions and automobile-efficiency standards and reintroduced earlier this year.
Subsequent dealings have produced another poor excuse for an energy strategy. The bill still limits citizen participation in the licensing of nuclear power plants - participation that the nuclear power industry lamely says threatens the rebirth of nuclear power. The companion bill in the House imposes the same restrictions.
Both House and Senate bills have provisions for increasing energy efficiency and use of solar, wind, and other clean, renewable energy resources. Some legislators deserve praise for their efforts.
Still, estimates indicate the bills would achieve only small reductions in the predicted growth in energy consumption, instead of holding future energy consumption below current levels - a goal that is cost-effective and technically possible.
Renewable sources of energy could raise their current contribution from 8 percent of the nation's energy use to over 50 percent by 2030, or sooner. Provisions to make permanent a tax credit for solar energy, for example, are laudable - but the bill does not diminish the unfairly favorable treatment the oil and nuclear power lobbies have won over the years.
Ultimately (and ironically) it may be deference to special interests that kills Johnston-Wallop. A late provision to make coal companies finance health benefits for coal miners has thrown up a roadblock.
Senator Wallop, who took $15,000 in 1988 campaign contributions from companies with coal interests, has threatened to kill the bill - his bill - due to the coal amendment. Mr. Bush hinted he might veto it for the same reason.
Whether or not the president signs an energy bill, Congress will probably move on to other matters.
Citizens can urge their representatives to go back and enact strong legislation to increase energy efficiency and the contribution of renewable energy - not the same special-interest favors that have created the nation's current energy problems.
Citizens should urge state legislators and officials to take similar measures. With the federal government in conflict and tripping over itself to help special interests, state governments may be the nation's best hope to enact positive alternatives to current energy policy.