THE ATTEMPT to rewrite the Clean Air Act is very likely to fail this year, and, in view of the way things have been going, that's fortunate. There's little hope of producing an adequate bill this fall. The Reagan administration's position has been guided by the most benighted kind of anti- regulatory zeal, while the chairman of the House Energy Committee, John D. Dingell of Michigan, is attempting to push through an altogether unwarranted relaxation of the standards for automobiles.
The preservation of the Clean Air Act and its health safeguards this year is owed to Sen. Robert T. Stafford, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He has not only blocked the administration's various bad ideas, but has also reported out a bill containing several important improvements on the present law. It would address the phenomenon of acid rain, an issue that the present law does not touch. Control of acid rain is a matter of real concern not only in Sen. Stafford's state of Vermont, but throughout the northeastern United States and much of eastern Canada. If this provision is not enacted this year -- and it probably won't be -- it will stand as a useful guide in years ahead when the prospects for serious legislation are better.
But the Clean Air Act needs more than this kind of occasional extension. The basic structure of the present law was laid down a dozen years ago, and the country has learned a lot about air pollution since then. There are additional kinds of pollution that require control, and there are better ways of controlling them.
The health benefits of pollution control are unquestionable, but the law needs a better way to bring the costs into a more rational balance with them. The environmental lobbies have always fought off any suggestion of cost analysis on the misguided assumption that it's only a device for subverting the whole idea of protection. To the contrary, there are areas in which the present rigid technical requirements are less effective in improving air quality than cheaper, more flexible rules might be.
Congress also needs to pay a lot more attention to the actual administration of this law. Its congressional authors have tended to keep adding highly precise, and complex, standards as though they were self-enforcing. Between the excessive budget cuts and the general chaos that currently reigns within the Environmental Protection Agency, the whole process of enforcement is now sagging. Air quality monitoring is more perilously spotty than ever. The delays in reviewing and approving plans are endless.
These are all questions that any revision of the Clean Air Act needs to address. There's absolutely no reason to hurry if hurrying means cutting corners. This law has made notable contributions to public health. It deserves more careful treatment than it is likely to get in the few weeks remaining before the election -- or, worse, in the peculiar atmosphere of a lame-duck session afterward.