THERE'S A lot of vehicle theft going on just now in Congress. With the clock running down, members and interest groups are on the lookout for popular bills to which to attach provisions that might not be able to withstand scrutiny on their own. The sponsors then threaten to use the shortness of time to block the underlying bills unless their provisions are accepted. The end-of-session chaos helps provide them cover.
Among the more egregious provisions now awaiting a ride is a proposal by the West Virginia delegation, led by Sen. Robert Byrd, to suspend the application of the clean water and other environmental statutes to a coal-mining practice called mountaintop removal. Mountaintops are blown apart, exposing coal, which is extracted. The debris is then bulldozed into the valleys below, where it often clogs streams in violation of the surface mining and clean water acts. A federal judge recently ordered a halt to the practice, then stayed his own order pending appeal.
Despite the stay, the delegation seeks through Sen. Byrd's position as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to add what would amount to a reversal of the judge's order to one of the remaining appropriations bills. The administration, initially sympathetic, now claims to be opposed to the rider. It shifted position in part under pressure from environmental groups and in part out of embarrassment, since the president has made a show of being opposed to about two dozen other riders mainly attached by Republicans to the Interior appropriations bill that would likewise have the effect of vitiating environmental law. They should all be vetoed; the coal rider is among the least deserving.
A proposal whose likely effect would be to sweeten the federal subsidy of some institutions making college student loans should likewise be rejected. It has been deftly added to a bill to make it easier for disabled people to go to work by letting them keep health care benefits they have to forfeit under current law. The Student Loan Marketing Association, a private company, is the principal sponsor, and critics say it would be the principal beneficiary.
Sallie Mae and other backers describe the bill as mainly a technical fix. But the Treasury says it would partly reverse a reform in the last Congress, "do nothing to make loans more affordable to students" and increase "the costs and risks to . . . taxpayers." The administration has thus far stopped short of threatening a veto on the issue, but it should. The lending industry ought not be allowed to hold hostage a bill for the disabled.
Not all the proposals looking for transport in these final days are bad. Community health centers were unwisely squeezed in a budget bill a couple of years ago and are in need of help for the good work they do, as are the nation's independent pediatric teaching hospitals. But most such proposals are far less worthy, and best left by the side of the road.