The Reagan administration, an unknown number in Congress, and the entire automotive industry all want to slow down the race to purify auto exhaust. So much has been accomplished in the last 10 years and so much in the way of continuing improvement in the quality of the air remains to be realized as a result of these accomplishments, that it has become pointless, it is argued, to burden consumers with the cost of imposing progressively higher standards that will yield relatively little in comparison with that which already has been achieved.
The Clean Air Act, which covers automotive exhaust standards under Title II, expired Sept. 30.
With Congress taking no action to extend it, the law and its schedules remain in force. Had it acted before the act expired, the whole package could have been chucked, its multitude of standards either softened or stiffened, or they could have been brought in line with political and economic realities that did not exist when the measure was passed. Things today are indeed different from what they were when the amendments to the Clean Air Act were enacted in 1970. At that time a hypothetical suggestion to ease or delay this or that pollution limit or deadline would have served as a call to arms to the then very powerful bastion of environmentalists who roamed the halls of Congress boasting openly of the numbers of unquestioning votes they had tucked in the pockets of their denim jeans.
Most of this group now has moved on to positions as ''consultants'' to think tanks and corporations, and the new group has cleaned up the environmentalist act to the point where pin-striped suits and wing-tipped shoes replace blue jeans and sandals. Too, they've lost a lot of their clout in the transition.
More and more congressmen tend to rank today's environmentalists with all the other lobbyists and members of just one more single-interest group.
The voices more apt to be heard most clearly now argue, not with threats of what might happen if lead is not removed from automotive gasoline or emissions reduced to 3.7 grams per mile by the 1975 model year, but rather in terms of value for dollar spent.
At issue in this new round of debate over auto-emission control will be how much more any given new-car-buying constituent will have to pay for existing or proposed emission standards, and what, in turn, he will have to show for his investment.
To be sure, more than a few raised this argument back in the late 1960s when the first increments of today's auto-emission standards were being drafted.
Back then, however, the economy was relatively stable and the air in many parts of the United States was foul. Today it is close to being the exact reverse. The air is a whole lot better these days (thanks in no small part to congressmen, environmentalists, and carmakers), but economically a lot of people are finding it far tougher to breathe.
President Reagan laced his campaign for the presidency with rhetoric avowing that the nation could progress toward its environmental goals while, at the same time, easing the regulatory burden on industry.
But it wasn't until Aug. 5 this year, more than half a year after his inauguration, that this promise was translated into policy for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that federal agency charged with enforcing the Clean Air Act.
Anne M. Gorsuch, administrator of the EPA, announced on that date that President Reagan was ''determined to seal the extension of the Clean Air Act,'' but with reservations. Included in these reservations was the provision that ''automobile standards should be adjusted to more reasonable levels.''
In early September a House committee released a document said to be the administration's blueprint for revising the Clean Air Act. One of the provisions of the document, which was not disowned by the White House, would ''ease requirements for reducing pollution from automobile emissions and require that the average emissions of the whole output of a given auto manufacturer be assessed, rather than having each vehicle meet a test.''
Dollarwise to be sure, and not as vague as the Gorsuch policy statement of two weeks before, nonetheless it lacked the thrust of a specific legislative proposal. Moreoever, no promise of one was forthcoming from the administration.
Even without the promised White House initiative, two representatives, Bob Traxler (D) of Michigan and Elwood Hillis (R) of Indiana, have proposed relatively modest revisions in two of the three exhaust emissions standards written into the Clean Air Act.
The most extreme of these would raise the carbon-monoxide standard from 3.4 grams per mile to 7 grams per mile. This action is based on the fact that in any given year between 60 and 90 percent of all manufactured products are exempted from the 3.4 g.p.m. standard after a costly regulatory procedure.
The bill also changes the standards on hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen on these and other grounds.
Championing the Traxler-Hillis bill are representatives of the auto industry. Roger B. Smith, chairman of General Motors, points out that GM spent $118 billion ''cleaning up the air'' in the 1970s - an amount that works out to $2, 100 for every family of four in the US.
Tailoring standards to meet the Traxler-Hillis bill can shave up to $400 off the price of a new American-built car, some people predict, while others put the saving at closer to $80 a car.
Either amount is low when compared with the price of a car when the Clean Air Act auto-emission standards first went into effect.
Now, however, the black cloud over the purse is more apt to sway votes in Congress than that brown cloud over Los Angeles some 11 years ago which prompted Congress to vote in the amendments to the Clean Air Act with only one opposing vote.
Mr. Traxler and Mr. Hillis claim some two dozen cosponsors, but say the number is growing.
While still far from a majority in the House, it does mean that air purity at any cost is no longer the sure thing it once was on Capitol Hill.