The sound and fury surrounding S.790 started up again this week as a Senate subcommittee continued hearings on the bill. But the star witness didn't show up.

Transportation Secretary Brock Adams was supposed to appear before the Water Resources Subcommittee to state the Carter administration's position on the legislation, which would establish, for the first time, a system of tolls for barges using the nation's inland waterways.

Late last week, though, with Adam's testimony just a few days off, the administration discovered that it didn't have a position. Adams had to track down the subcommittee chairman, Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), in Juneau to ask for a 10-day reprieys.

On the surface it would seem easy to discern the administration's views on waterway issues.

For one thing, Adams, Jimmy Carter's chief spokesman on transportation matters, wrote an article in 1975 supporting the concept of waterway user charges.

And in February Bert Lance, director of the Office of Management and Budget, included in his "Fiscal Year 1978 Budget Revisions" a line item predicting $80 million in receipts from waterway tolls - an inclusion that would seem to imply support for legislation establishing the tolls.

But things weren't that simple.

Lance's line item, for example, didn't really reflect a political position on the toll legislation. It refected the budgeteers' instinctive urge to add in any potential receipt that can offset the ever-increasing list of expenditures.

It is was subterfuge for Lance to include receipts from a toll system that hadn't been established, there was a precedent for it. The Ford administration had budgeted the same $80 million "receipt" for two years when there wasn't even a waterway toll bill before Congress.

Adams, meanwhile, had found that the freedom to express his views that he enjoyed as a congressman was strictly curtailed when he became a spokesman for an administration.

The government, he discovered, was full of disparate agencies, each with its own constituency and view on waterway matters.

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded that waterway tolls would reduce the pressure from barge lines for more and bigger waterways; EPA agreed with Adams that the tolls would be a good idea.

But at the Commerce Department, the Maritime Administration didn't want its favorite industry to have to pay to use the waterways. As stated with lyric alliteration by a spokesman, Walter Oates, "Marad's position is one of opposition to the imposition of tolls."

Across the Potomac at the Pentagon, the Army Corps of Engineers was hesitant, too. The Agriculture Department wavered between opposition and neutrality.

To complicate things, the toll proposal had been linked in the Senate with something more controversial: authorization for a major new lock and dam on the Mississippi at Alton, III.

The Corps of Engineers strongly supported the Alton lock; EPA didn't like it; OMB thought it was too expensive; the Transportation Department wasn't sure.

Within the White House, the Alton proposal had prompted one of the rare disagreements between Carter and Vice President Mondale.

As a senator from Minnesota and as Carter's running mate, Mondale had strongly supported the new lock. Candidate Carter had been fuzzy, saying the facility required "further study.

Lance, as OMB director, is the executive branch's umpire in areas sof disagreement, and his staff began in February - within days after S.790 had been introduced - to moid the various executive views into a single voice.

That process involved a whirlwind of meetings, memos, "action papers" and telephone conversations.

Adams visited Army Secretary Clifford Alexander to see if they could find common ground on the issues. A working group of subcabinet-level people from eight agencies met at the Executive Office Building to discuss the legislation.

Lance's staff rather quickly came to the disconcerning realization that its efforts to forge agreement had led to further disagreement.

There was a rough consensus within the government in favor of the waterway charges but there was considerable disagreement over the form they should take. Some agencies proposed a fuel tax, some wanted tolls, some had other mechanisms in mind.

There was sno consensus on the Alton lock. Early this month Adams sent a team of engineers to Alton to review the technical basis of the Army Corp's arguments.

By late Wednesday, when a "decision memo" should have been started on its way to the Oval Office, Lance's staff members knew they were no where near a decision.

Adams and Gen. Ernest Graves of the Army engineers were deputized to pass the bad news to the Senate. They spent two days trying to find Gravel, who was politicking in his home state. Finally, Thursday afternoon, they made contact and Gravel agreed to reschedule the administration testimony for May 2.

Carter would have 10 more days to decide how he feels about S.790.