BOSTON — As its silver anniversary approaches on Saturday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency is hunkering beneath an ominous budgetary cloud.
This week, the House and Senate were set to approve $5.7 billion for the agency, 14 percent below last year's budget and nearly 23 percent below President Clinton's request. In addition, the conference bill deprives the agency of final veto power over the dumping of potentially hazardous materials into wetlands and weakens community right-to-know rules.
To Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, who has guided the EPA budget through the House, the cut sends the agency a message: Reduce burdensome regulations. To Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri, who has led the Senate effort, the cut is a byproduct of efforts to balance the budget and forces EPA to set priorities.
But to William Ruckelshaus, the agency's founding director, by taking a meat axe to the EPA's budget, Congress is in danger of perpetuating the very problems it is trying to solve. He acknowledges the agency's progress in cleaning the air and water. But in an interview, Mr. Ruckelshaus - currently chairman of the board of Browning-Ferris Industries, a waste-management company - points to what he sees as key organizational problems beyond limited agency funding.
He says EPA's troubles - a lack of public trust, slow progress in cleaning up waste sites, and horror stories of agency bureaucrats tromping on ''the little guy'' - are largely of Congress's making. They won't be solved, he says, until lawmakers give the EPA a clear, unified assignment and the authority and flexibility to carry it out.
''I'm not defending any particular level of expenditure,'' Ruckelshaus says, ''because it depends on what you're spending the money for.'' Yet lawmakers ''are telling the agency not to do what a previous Congress has told it to do, or they're saying, 'We're not going to give you enough money to do what we earlier told you to do.' The sensible thing is to say, 'We're going to change your assignment, and we're going to give you more authority to decide within that assignment what's most important.' ''
Ruckelshaus, whom President Nixon appointed as EPA's first administrator in 1970, concedes that giving the EPA more authority runs counter to the inclinations of the Republican Congress. He holds, however, that the agency's excesses can be traced to both its friends and its foes, leading to the wide swings in support on Capitol Hill during EPA's 25-year history. Its friends, worried about what would happen if leadership of the agency fell into ''unfriendly'' hands, wrote a dozen laws - from the Clean Air Act to the Superfund legislation - that spell out the agency's tasks in minute detail and set what he sees as often unrealistic timetables.
Detailed dictates from Congress ''inevitably force the agency to do things that don't make any sense in a given context,'' he says. That leads to the backlash from the agency's foes, who zero in on nonsensical actions. Agency officials respond by developing thick skins, and that reinforces an image of insensitivity. All this ''further erodes confidence and trust in the agency's ability to act rationally.''
To Ruckelshaus, the way to dampen the wide swings in political support is first to remove environment issues from what he calls the ''quasi-religious'' realm. That is no small challenge, since many denominations have begun casting environmental issues in moral and theological terms. In September, for example, the Greek Orthodox Church established a new category of sin against the environment following a meeting it sponsored with theologians, scientists, and environmentalists.
''You're not going to stop all human or corporate activity having some impact on the environment just because you've declared it a sin,'' Ruckelshaus says. ''To the extent that this attitude of pollution being evil has found its way into our statutes, we have prohibited it even though that is unachievable in some cases and unwise in others because the benefits to society simply don't warrant the expense.''
Nor is he an advocate of an unbridled ''cost-benefit'' approach to environmental regulations. ''You can't just put this thing into a computer and expect it all to come out exactly perfect. There are values involved.''
As he sees it, the entire environmental regime needs to be recodified into one law, with one committee in each house of Congress responsible for oversight, instead of nearly 70 committees now. That law should give the agency more authority to set priorities and more flexibility in meeting them. Moreover, he says the rulemaking process should be democratized.
Citing examples ranging from controlling arsenic emissions from a copper smelter in Tacoma, Wash., to dealing with rangeland issues in Wyoming, he says, ''If you give people the power and responsibility to try to resolve these issue themselves, a consensus can be had. Congress should give the agency the authority to pull the relevant stakeholders in these issues together and try to hammer out a solution. If you let them know that's where the solution is going to be decided, and that if they don't participate, there isn't another level of appeal, it's remarkable how much progress you can make.''