IF THE REPUBLICANS can swallow a proposal from a Democrat to solve multiple problems simultaneously, probably without spending any extra money, they might try this: a way to please budget cutters by reducing wasteful water projects, allay environmentalist fears by cleaning up toxic wastes, and bring smiles to the generals by helping improve military preparedness.

Impossible, you say? Not at all. It could be done with one simple stroke: Put the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work cleaning up toxic wastes.

America's toxic waste problem is appalling, and so is the federal government's response so far.

After three years of intense rule-writing, EPA has come up with a regulatory program that, by former administrator Douglas Costle's estimate, will more than double the number of persons with whom the agency must deal.

At least 700,000 generators, treaters, storers and disposers of toxic waste will be brought into a nationwide "cradle-to-grave" manifest system where (in principle if not in fact) wastes will be traced from point of generation to disposal in approval storage sites; with those manifests no doubt accumulating by the ton in EPA filing cabinets, a waste problem unto themselves.

In addition, more than 30,000 operators of waste disposal sites will be required to obtain special permits and monitor their sites for leakage for up to 30 years, while federal, state and local agencies are monitoring them (and each other).

The goal is a multi-layered national regulatory program of unprecedented complexity, involving EPA, state agencies, local agencies, and hundreds of consulting firms under federal, state and local contract.

No one has the faintest idea where the army of individuals needed to man this bureaucratic marvel will come from, how their efforts will be coordinated or even whether it's possible to assure quality control.

For the cleanup of abandoned dumps, meant to be financed by the toxic waste Superfund, EPA expects to spend three or four years conducting an inventory of those sites, employing private consultants for the most part. The thoroughness and accuracy of their findings will vary according to the diverse priorities of state and local governments involved in the program and the 10 EPA regional headquarters that are overseeing the inventory and cleanup activities on a semi-autonomous basis. Actual cleanup will begin sometime in the future.

And there we stand. The media have sounded the alarm. The public is aroused. The urgency is real. Yet, after nearly a decade of effort, before a problem whose dimensions are expanding day by day, the most we can turn out is a stupefying regulatory labyrinth that cannot begin to make an impact for several more years, if at all.

The new administration, it is reported, would like to simplify the process by applying the principle of greater state and local responsibility in association with that ultimate defender of the common good, the "unseen hand" of the marketplace.

But the evidence clearly demonstrates that state and local agencies are even less prepared to address this problem than the federal government, especially at a time when favored constituencies are clamoring for funds in the face of draconian budget cuts.

That leaves the "unseen hand."

Question: Suppose you could find a private developer who wanted to build a toxic waste dump. Would you want to let him put it near your home, with no other guarantee for your safety than his word? With the possibility that he might walk away from his handiwork at any moment, with no alternatives for relief but our backlogged courts or a place at the bottom of a cleanup list running years behind schedule?

The American people already have begun answering that question. Public approval for new dump sites has become virtually impossible to obtain.

As a result, waste generators find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

A few weeks ago, a congressional committee heard testimony that organized crime has moved into the multi-billion-dollar waste-hauling business, offering guaranteed disappearance of the stuff at rock-bottom prices, no questions asked.

As the output of toxic wastes grows along with public resistance to dump sites, "midnight dumping" by criminal elements can only increase.

That, in turn, will mean an increase in humanly and economically destructive pollution of land and water resources.

It will also mean, eventually, another federal campaign to clean up not the sites abut the industry, with investigations, scandals, headlines, lawsuits, trials and other public rites of the same order.

So here we have a national crisis before which the programmatic philosophies of our political parties appear equally helpless.

Fortunately, an alternative exists.

Consider the need: First, immediate action; second, some sense of certainty as to the quality of the work and the commitment of waste dump operators to fulfill their responsibilities into the indefinite future.

Ideally, then, we are looking for an action-oriented organization with a reputation for professional quality and integrity, that can tackle the toxic waste problem on a nationwide basis; that, most important, can clean up toxic waste and build new waste dumps fast and with assurances of uniform high quality of construction and long-term maintenance.

In other words, the mission of the world's largest engineering organization, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, should be shifted to include inventorying and cleaning up abandoned toxic waste dumps, and handling operation and maintenance of active sites nationwide, under contract to EPA. Their efforts could be funded by savings gained from ending many of their controversial waterway building programs. And/or savings made by eliminating the existing anti-toxic-waste bureaucracy. And/or money from the toxic waste Superfund. And/or equitably distributed taxes shaped by the Congress.

Such a mission would be in the national interest in more ways than one.

The civil works role of the Army Corps maintains an organization-in-being for mobilization in a wartime emergency. Three times in this century (World Wars I and II and Korea) that dual civil-military mission has proved its value, as an action-honed civil works division of the Army Corps shifted gears without a hitch and with awesome effectiveness. But now, the Army Corps is wondering whether it has the resources to do the job again. Its in-house manpower pool has been cut back. Its principal mission -- flood control -- no longer excites the urgency of earlier years. In fact, it is often attacked by environmentalists and others as a boondoggle that causes more problems than it solves. If the Army Corps is to maintain a status that would enable it to fulfill its wartime mission, it needs a more productive peacetime mission.

A toxic waste mission for the Army Corps might function as follows:

The Corps establishes special field investigation units. The units have standardized equipment, standardized uniforms, standardized operating criteria. A toxic waste team operating in Mississippi is identical in every respect with a team operating in Pennsylvania. As abandoned sites are inventoried, special cleanup units move in, working according to procedures that are also standardized on a nationwide basis -- and working fast under a strict timetable. Dump sites are upgraded, new sites are built, always according to strict, uniform and high military standards. If they can build ammunition dumps, they can build toxic waste dumps. Guarantees of maintenance will exist for the life of the Corps, so the public can feel secure.

Thus, by a single action, we will have eliminated an entire labyrinth of federal, state, and local agencies and private consultants intermingling with ever-increasing confusion and only minimal decisive action.

We also will be testing a concept which could have a profound effect on the strength and wellbeing of the nation.

The toxic waste crisis dramatizes a basic weakness in the methods and structure of those federal agencies charged with protecting the physical resources of America, the body of the nation.

They are extremely weak in meeting missions that require large-scale mobilization for action, a capacity that, by contrast, is inherent to the structure of the military services.

Nor can civilian agencies be reshaped to mobolize with greater effectiveness without unacceptable increases in personnel and centralized authority, comparable to that exercised by political commissars in communist countries. That is the basic flaw in the proposals for a civilian national service, at least for problems requiring uniform, nationwide mobilization, like toxic waste: They can only avoid the unevenness and bureaucratic proliferation of other civilian job programs by undermining the fundamental decentralizing concept upon which civilian government in America is built. Far better to hand such missions to Army civil works units answering to civilian authority.

Some environmentalists, recalling their battles against the Army Corps in flood control matters, might cringe at handing that agency an environmental defense mission.

But they should keep in mind the efficiency of the Corps, and its history.

"Even our detractors grant that we're pretty good at what we do," Lt. Gen. John W. Morris, chief of engineers, told a congressional committee. "They just don't like what we do."

During an earlier period, the Army Corps was the nation's most effective defender of the natural environment.

For nearly a generation, Army units protected our national parks from spoilation, under orders from the president and the Congress, after civilian agencies proved utterly helpless at the task. The Corps built trails and campgrounds, stocked rivers and streams, patrolled against poachers and illegal loggers, even defeating the railroads in their efforts to gain entry into the parks. The Corps, in association with other Army units, established game control regulations that served as models for many states and foreign nations. In fact, the governing framework created by the Army for the parks served as the model for the National Park Service.

Who knows? Perhaps in advancing to meet an immediate threat to the body of the American nation, before which all other agencies of the American community, no matter how well-meaning, are helpless, the Army will regain the broad base of public support it has been vainly seeking and so deserves.

"Blessing on Uncle Sam's soldiers," wrote John Muir at the turn of the century; "they have done their job well, and every pine tree is waving its arms for joy."

Muir, of course, was America's foremost naturalist -- the founder of the Sierra Club.