WHO SHOULD FOOT the bill for Superfund and its necessary but increasingly expensive campaign to clean up toxic waste dumps? The House thinks that the money ought to come chiefly from the industries that generate most of the pollution. The Senate argues that, to the contrary, a large share of it ought to come from society as a whole since the waste is produced by industries that benefit all of society. Each house passed its own bill last year, neither has given way to the other, and the deadlock continues.
When Congress first established Superfund six years ago, it was to be supported principally by a tax on the oil and chemical industries. Now Congress has agreed that the work is going too slowly and Superfund needs to be greatly expanded. The oil and chemical companies complain that the burden is becoming too heavy for them to carry alone. The chemical manufacturers argue that it would impose price increases making them less competitive abroad, and chemicals are among this country's leading exports.
The Senate, in which the oil industry is better represented than it is in the House, voted last fall for a value-added tax -- in effect, a national sales tax -- to pay for the expansion of Superfund. the House denounced that as an attempt to shift the costs of the cleanup from the polluter to the consumer. Its version of the bill relies instead mainly on sharply higher taxes on oil and chemicals plus a direct tax on waste disposal.
Now, at last, a compromise seems to be taking shape -- but not an altogether desirable compromise. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, has put on the table a proposal for a business profits tax. Because it's a broadly based tax, it meets one of the Senate's key requirements, but also meets the House's condition that it not fall on consumers -- or at least, not directly.
But there are problems. To draft an entirely new tax in a congressional conference, and zip it to the floors of the House and Senate with no hearings and no committee consideration, is manifestly bad practice. Linking the Superfund taxes as closely as possible to waste disposal, and to the polluting industries, continues to be the right principle. But the chemical manufacturers are justified in saying that there is a point beyond which a special tax would damage their competitiveness. Beyond that point, the cost of Superfund ought certainly to be borne by a broad-based tax -- of which the broadest and best is the income tax. Is it not cuckoo to invent a new and questionable tax in a conference committee, in order to be able to afford simultaneously to cut deeply the rates of a better and fairer one?