THE AUTOMOBILE is turning into the most dangerous and bitterly fought political issue of the year for Congress. This morning we won't get into the quarrels over gasoline taxes, or small-car rebates, or the surge of imported cars. Too many confusions seized simultaneously are bad for the brain cells. But the long struggle over the revision of the Clean Air Act, and the pollution that automobiles exhale into the atmosphere, is now approaching a climax.
New week the House of Representatives will have to choose between two quite different bills. Rep. Paul G. Rogers and his health subcommittee have generally adopted the administration's compromise. But it's under attack from Rep. John D. Dingell, chairman of the energy subcommittee, and a large coalition of auto manufacturing companies, the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO.
The question is how much pollution the country is willing to tolerate - and who bears the costs of curbing it. Before going any further, the reader is entitled to a warning that technology in this field is advancing rapidly, and keeps changing the nature of the choices.
UNtil recently, for example, we at this newspaper believed that there was a substantial trade-off between clean exhausts and feul efficiency. If you wanted less pollution, according to that wisdom, you would have to settle for fewer miles per gallon. That's still true, Mr. Dingell argues. But last month the federal Environment Protection Agency told Congress that present technology permits the tighter standards of the Rogers bill without any penalty in fuel.
The standards in that bill are not new. They are much the smae standards Congress wrote in 1970, to be achieved by 1976. There have been delays and postponements, but this law has been extraordinarily successful in forcing important technical advances. While the fuel penalty has been diminishing, there has been a steady accumulation of evidence that auto pollution is bad for the people who breathe it. The present trend of rising pollution means higher risks. The case for the Rogers bill is getting steadily stronger.
But simply imposing these standards on new cars, as they roll out of the factory, is not going to be enough. The pollution-control equipment on these cars may fail with age. The EPA is starting to nudge cities and states toward inspection and maintenance rules. Here the Rogers bill goes a step farther than the administration. There are now 29 areas - including, as you might guess, metropolitan Washington - where pollution in the air is now well above the legal limits. The Rogers bill would, justifiably, make automobile-exhaust checkups mandatory here and in the 28 other high-pollution regions. Part of the dispute in Congress is over the length and breadth of manufacturer's warranties on this equipment, but that's negotiable. The important thing is to establish the principle of mandatory maintenance of the cars' pollution-control devices. Americans accept the idea of regular inspections of automobile brakes and lights. It is now time to add exhaust pipes to the list, for the same reason: the protection of people who want to keep breathing while they keep driving.