Protecting the American way of life

IMAGINE for a moment that the President suggested, and Congress approved, plans for a major new weapons system -- a system so important that if it were built it would immediately become a significant factor in our arms control negotiations with the Russians. But also imagine that the project was never funded and instead got lost in the current flood of federal budget red ink. What would happen? In this age of military preparedness, such a decision is inconceivable. At the first sign of fiscal restraint by Congress, the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs would come protesting to Capitol Hill, denouncing the effort to thwart a vital weapons plan.

And yet, the scenario of planning the implementation of vital programs -- programs that literally define the American way of life -- and then failing to fund such programs has become almost a daily event in Washington.

There is no clearer example of such forgotten promises than the administration's 1986 budget for the Environmental Protection Agency. Touted as one of the few examples of actual budget increase in this austere year, the EPA budget reduces once again the agency's ability to enforce the laws entrusted to it.

In the late '70s, Congress created seven major weapons systems in our war on environmental pollution. Among the EPA arsenal are the program to screen toxic new chemicals before they are manufactured; the program to regulate the disposal of hazardous wastes; and the program to register pesticides such as the dangerous ethyl dibromide, which so contaminated our food several months ago that products all over the country were hastily pulled from supermarket shelves. But the administration's proposed budget for 1986 leaves EPA with the same effective purchasing power it had in 1975, before any of these programs were created.

In effect, these weapons have been planned but never built. While we proclaim ourselves the industrial leaders of the Western world our efforts to safeguard natural resources gradually fall far behind those of our allies.

The administration defends its budget not only by noting the unusual increase in total funding (some 2 percent in the basic law enforcement mission of the agency), but also by pointing to substantial increases in programs controlling the future disposal of hazardous wastes. We are told that these programs have increased some 20 percent in actual personnel. The administration is also proud of its newfound faith in the Superfund program to clean up hazardous-waste sites abandoned in the past, which it stands ready to reauthorize at funding levels of $5.3 billion over the next five years.

What these statistics overlook is that, after sustaining heavy cuts in the administration's first term, the total operating budget the administration has requested for the agency has not kept pace with inflation. Resources have been shifted inside EPA and have been focused on the politically sensitive area of hazardous waste.

The precious, and scarce, dollars are not new money but rather a transfer of capital from the older, less visible programs to ensure clean water and clean air. For example, resources to implement the Clean Water Act have fallen 42 percent over the last five years; Clean Air implementation funds are down 22 percent.

Over the last four years, EPA has enforced these basic laws in such a halfhearted manner that total business investment in pollution abatement has dropped a precipitous 40 percent. Reports by such independent organizations as the General Accounting Office and the National Academy of Sciences document rates of noncompliance with fundamental legal requirements as high as 80 percent in environmental program after program.

As for the areas that have been increased, the administration's commitment to such programs as Superfund is commendable, although inadequate. At the funding levels it proposes, it could take 30 years to clean up the nation's worst hazardous waste dumps.

The answer from David Stockman to the concerns I have raised about the federal government's commitment to environmental programs is that responsibility for such efforts must transfer to the state and local governments. This principle already applies to most environmental programs; Superfund, for example, will probably only address some 10 to 15 percent of the known dump sites nationwide, with thousands of others remaining the states' responsibility. For other programs, only national enforcement can adequately do the job, because the contamination of the air, the water, and the soil does not respect the boundaries of government.

In the months ahead, Congress and the American people will be compelled to make some decisions about budget priorities. We must bring the deficit under control, we must build a strong defense, and we must have realistic expectations of the federal government.

But at some point, as we try to control deficits without slowing the defense buildup, we must also ask ourselves what it is about the American way of life that we are so willing to sacrifice all to defend. Unless we are careful, we may find ourselves armed to the teeth in a few years, guarding our borders, with our backs to the gradual poisoning of the land we are so committed to protect.

Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism, which is responsible for hazardous-waste programs of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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