HOW IMPORTANT do you think it is to "preserve communications through the outdoor medium"? The House Public Works and Transportation Committee and its chairman, Rep. James Howard (D-N.J.), evidently think it's pretty important -- so important that the committee passed unanimously an amendment that purports to do just that. "The outdoor medium" is a euphemism for billboards, and the amendment, which Mr. Howard and his colleagues presumably hope to bring to the floor of the House later this month, would eliminate the program under which the federal government pays billboard owners to have their "outdoor media" torn down.

This we always considered one of the most benign products of the Great Society, and specifically of Lady Bird Johnson's beautification program. We're surprised that responsible legislators like Mr. Howard want to get rid of it. It may be that Congress is reluctant to spend very much on this program now, but that seems all the more reason someone should fight for it. Under the amendment, payment for tearing down billboards would have to come from the states. As Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, says, "the practical reality is the states aren't going to take the signs down."

The amendment Mr. Howard sponsored turns out to be very similar to one produced by Vernon Clark, chief lobbyist for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Chairman Howard and other Public Works members have received $4,000 honoraria for speaking before the OAAA and have attended its functions at such gritty work places as Palm Springs.

Apparently the strategy of those who want to gut the highway beautification program is to get the Howard amendment through the House as part of the major transportation authorization bill, and then get senators to agree to it in conference.

This is one of those issues that can easily get lost in the rush at the end of the congressional session. It would be a shame if the billboard law expired in such ignominious fashion.