Over the past several months Congress has accumulated a total vote of 910 to 8 in favor of a $20-billion, eight-year Clean Water Act program, and the count will continue to soar when the Senate votes on the bill again this week--possibly Monday. If President Reagan chooses to veto the bill a second time, and Congress is forced to take an override vote, the cumulative tally in support of this program could approach astronomical proportions--something like 1,500 to 100, which assumes that some senators and House members would rally behind the White House on an override showdown. That would certainly set some kind of record for White House stubbornness in the face of overwhelming congressional support.
Congress passed the bill late in the last session after four years of work in drafting a continuation of the program first enacted over Richard M. Nixon's veto in 1972. The vote last fall was 408 to 0 in the House and 96 to 0 in the Senate. About $10 billion would be issued in grants to local governments for construction of new sewage-treatment facilities and the renovation of old ones; $8 billion would be put into a revolving fund for loans beginning in 1990, and $2 billion would be used in other clean-water programs. The proposed law provides for grants of up to 55% of the cost of the sewage-treatment facilities. States provide another 15%, and local governments put up the rest.
This has been an extremely effective and popular program. Since many interstate streams, estuaries and lakes are affected, the federal government has a clear responsibility. Economic development is restricted in many areas by the sewage systems strained to capacity. One wonders why the President has decided to draw the line in the dirt so firmly and deeply on this issue. While he did not directly threaten to veto the bill again, the President denounced it in his budget talk on radio last weekend, saying, "I'm in favor of clean water, but the only thing clean in this bill is its name. It spends billions more than is needed."
The President battled last year to hold the cost to $6 billion, phasing the program out over three years. But on the same day he condemned the congressional version on the radio, he signed his new budget, which offered a compromise at $12 billion. The House ignored the offer in passing the 1987 version of the $20-billion program on Thursday on a vote of 406 to 8. The Senate should do the same, making it clear that another veto will be overridden. The President managed to avoid an override last year only by using his pocket-veto authority just two days after the November general election.
The need for a substantial investment is evident. The City of Los Angeles alone must spend $2.3 billion over the next decade to bring its sewage-collection, -treatment and -disposal system up to state and federal standards. The absence of each federal dollar of assistance would mean another dollar tacked onto the city sewer fee--amounting to a regressive tax that would fall most heavily onto low-income Angelenos.
A city official noted that most large Eastern cities rebuilt and expanded their sewage systems with massive help from Washington in the early more generous days of the program. "The Eastern cities got theirs, for sewers and subway systems," the official said. "We're at the end of the line."
Without a murmur about "budget-busting," the President did not hesitate last year in signing legislation authorizing $16 billion for dams, canals, ports and similar projects. On reflection, perhaps he will recognize that comparable spending for clean water is a solid investment in the nation's environmental, and economic, health.