Who could be against a program called Superfund? Bills extending the expiring program passed the Senate last year 86 to 13 and the House 391 to 33. But these majorities belie the reality. The extension still has not been enacted, and the program is languishing. You have here Congress at its worst, too divided and weak to produce a timely compromise, seemingly incapable of meeting the simplest deadline.
No one opposes the Superfund objective of keeping the contents of industrial dumps from poisoning the water supply. But there are great disputes over how serious the danger is and how to attack it; how large the program ought to be; how to finance it; how prescriptive Congress should be on matters from the number of sites to be cleaned up each year to what is meant by clean.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, sensibly led by Robert Stafford of Vermont, produced a bill last March. Not until June did the two other Senate committees with partial jurisdiction finish up. The administration objected to the work of these panels (too costly, wrong funding system) and thought it could strike a better deal by waiting until the old program was about to expire Sept. 30. The leadership brought up other bills first; the Senate didn't pass its Superfund bill (pretty much as it came from the committees) until Sept. 26.
In the House, meanwhile, no committee acted until Energy and Commerce produced a bill in late July. The environmental groups didn't like the measlic Works. It did not report its version, which the environmental groups did like, until November. It took another month for these and the three other committees with jurisdiction to agree on a common bill. The House passed it Dec. 10. As with the Senate bill, the White House threatened -- still threatens -- a veto. An effort to settle just the funding dispute as the session ended 10 days later foundered, taking with it the year's big reconciliation bill.
The Environmental Protection Agency, sensing trouble, began throttling down the program in August. When work on any site came to a convenient stopping place, the site was put on hold. Now officials doubt that even this method will see them through.
The administration had resisted a simple extension of the old program for another year, on grounds that it made no sense to take the pressure off Congress. It has now reversed itself and will accept such an extension. Congress ought to pass one -- and rethink the way it handles these issues. The program has lost a year. If the executive branch performed this shoddily, just think of the indignant speeches that would resound in Congress. And rightly so.