Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) became annoyed in the House Rules Committee the other day, and who could blame her?
"Something really bothers me," she told a witness who had been telling her that she had to move fast. "You have indicated that what we do would have a bearing on hundreds of years to come, but we have to pass something before we get out of here."
The "something" was the nuclear waste policy act, which has suddenly acquired the highest priority among many issues on which Congress should act before it dashes for the door. Just how it took precedence over the immigration bill is one of those mysteries that come out of the blender of pressures, crosscurrents and simple fatigue with an issue that just won't go away.
Radioactive waste is the civilian version of the MX, a weapon beloved by hawks as long as it is based outside their home states. Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has never been known as an enemy of nuclear power plants, nonetheless has been at considerable pains to see that Mississippi is outlawed as the home of an interim waste depository.
The utilities executives have worn down members of Congress with their warnings of dwindling storage space. Rep. Butler Derrick (D-S.C.), in whose home district some 30 million gallons of the stuff are stored, complains that one utility, while telling Congress it would be out of room by 1985 or 1986, was assuring New York bond attorneys there was room enough until the late 1990s.
Some cold hearts on Capitol Hill have told utilities that they should dispose of their own garbage at plant sites but, ever since President Carter proposed site deposits away from reactors, utilities have been waiting for Uncle Sam to do the disposing for them.
Congress has been alarmed by nuclear industry plaints that, without federal relief, they will have to shut down. No member can turn a deaf ear to threats that constituents will be left in the dark and cold. On the other hand, they hear, at equally loud volume, complaints of citizens objecting vehemently to the prospect of having trucks or trains laden with radioactive material rumbling by the door.
The nuclear industry has had acute public relations problems since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. The industry blames federal regulation and the other usual suspects. In six states, the industry is stopped dead by laws forbidding construction of new plants until the waste problem is solved. No nuclear plants have been ordered in five years.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the leading no-nuke in Congress, calls the bill being rushed to the floor "just a life-support system for a dying industry." He contends that, if taxpayers take over the 40- to 50-year burden of interim federal storage sites, the impetus for a permanent solution -- deep, irretrievable, geological burial in one large federal site -- will disappear, leaving the next generation to start all over again.
Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), the No. 1 environmentalist, agrees with Markey that the bill provides a bailout for the nuclear industry. But, having been importuned for years by all sides, Udall supports the bill, because it promises some progress toward the "final solution."
In addition to causing unwelcome election-year angst among voters, whose nuclear nerves have been touched by the freeze issue, the nuclear waste policy act could, the Rules Committee hearing proved, offer unlimited opportunities for a new kind of civil war.
Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) said, for instance, that if Colorado were to be chosen, millions and millions of gallons of water would be required for construction. "The secretary of energy should make a determination that the site would not be detrimental to an area," he said.
That, of course, is the heart of the matter. Closeness to population centers of 1,000 persons makes it detrimental in Misssippi, according to Lott. Proximity to a national park makes it detrimental in Utah.
Under the House bill, the governor of a state who vetoed being chosen as a disposal site could prevail if both houses of Congress upheld him. But Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho.) has thoughtfully written into the already-passed Senate version a clause that preempts state protest by simply declaring that the bill is "a permanent solution to the waste problem."
It was a thought reflected in the Rules Committee by hard-nosed Rep. Samuel S. Stratton (D-N.Y.). When asked by Rep. John Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.) if he thought states should have any role in the process, Stratton replied peremptorily, "I thought we fought that out in 1860."
He may think so, but wait until an inhospitable state is chosen as a dump.
That's why the rush to judgment strikes Chisholm and many others as unseemly. Having waited this long, Congress might well take a little more time to decide a question for the ages.