LAST January the Bush administration, most of Congress, and numerous editorial pages (including ours) rallied around the idea of elevating the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet status. Nearly everyone agreed it was a move in line with current needs - largely symbolic, perhaps, but important nonetheless. The EPA was celebrating 20 years on the job, and Earth Day 1990 (April 22) seemed a perfect date for Mr. Bush to sign the measure. That was nine months ago. After the initial flurry of support, the bill disappeared into the legislative mill and has barely been seen since. As often happens, what seemed a straightforward proposition got bogged down in controversy as lawmakers tacked on their particular concerns.
First came the effort to create an independent bureau of environmental statistics within the new EPA. The president didn't like provisions making it hard to remove the bureau's director for anything short of malfeasance, and a veto threat arose. The current Senate version of the bill includes compromises to remove that threat.
Meanwhile, two House Democrats, Dennis Eckart of Ohio and John Dingell of Michigan, chairmen of the energy and commerce committees respectively, demanded that a provision be added to give state attorneys general authority to force cleanup of federal weapons production sites laden with hazardous waste. This attempt to sidestep the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects the federal government from lawsuits, is strongly opposed in the Senate. Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine has tried to steer the weapons-site cleanup proposal into a separate bill, but the outlook for that tactic is not hopeful.
What seems forgotten in all this is the simple need to give the EPA and its chief the standing they need in a world beset by environmental dilemmas. Other leading nations have already put their environmental ministers on the top rung of government.
Issues like cleaning up the weapons plants demand attention. But they should be dealt with in legislation of their own and not be the means, albeit unintentional, of strapping the EPA to its lower-rung status.