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Good and bad signals

We will comment on President Reagan's budget blockbuster in tomorrow's paper. But, on the eve of his address to Congress, the White House sent out two signals to the nation warranting brief note. One, in our view, is bad; the other, good. The first is the President's ending of temperature restrictions for public buildings. The second is the recommendation that Congress, Cabinet members, and top federal officials forgo pay raises this year.

To take the first, it is regrettable that the White House is in effect conveying to the American people that mandated energy-saving measures are not worth the effort. In theory, the White House contention that "voluntary and market incentives will achieve substantially the same benefit without incurring the regulatory cost" may be right. But our hunch is that a continuing government prod is needed to keep Americans conservation-conscious.

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It is a matter of what kind of tone and image the White House sets for the entire nation. Mr. Reagan has downplayed conservation in the past, accenting production instead. Yet, energy experts stress, conservation has made the largest contribution of any energy source to the nation's energy availability since the devastating oil embargo of 1973. Considering just temperature restrictions in public buildings, the Department of Energy estimates that the federal rules have saved $4.5 billion or some 123 million barrels of imported oil.

The point is that conservation continues to be a crucial source of energy. By lifting price controls, the President hopes to unleash a whirlwind of oil development. But Harvard specialist Daniel Yergin, among others, warns that it is highly uncertain whether sufficient reserves will be found to achieve even a leveling out of domestic production, not to mention an increase of it. The United States is far from out of the woods in reducing dependence on foreign oil and, until such time as an array of energy sources are developed, conservation remains vital.

In the national interest, therefore, the White House should not let up on educating the public in the importance of saving energy -- and nudging it in that direction. Restoration of the temperature curbs (even though sometimes defied) would be wise.

As for the second signal, deferral of a 17 percent pay raise for lawmakers and high federal officials is in line with holding down inflation and asking sacrifice from all segments of society in order to achieve that goal. Granting such increases now would set a poor precedent for the entire public sector. And if civil servants generally, who often are paid more and have higher pension benefits than their counterparts in the private sector, begin clamoring for bigger salary increases, this could make it more difficult to hold down private wage settlements as well. The US could well take a lesson from Britain, where the growth of public pay is thwarting Margaret Thatcher's efforts to lift the British economy.

This is not to say that judges, lawmakers, and other top public servants do not warrant more money -- or to forget that they would earn considerably more in the private sector. But, at a time when most Americans wrestle with a punishing squeeze on their financial resources, present federal salaries can hardly be considered burdensome. And, in terms of enlisting individuals of high ability to top posts in the government, their earnings in the private sector are often so much greater that it is doubtful the government would be deprived of their services whatever the federal pay, if in fact they wanted to serve.

Now then -- we're off to turn down our thermostats.

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