WASHINGTON — When President Bush announces his proposal today for getting pollution out of the nation's air, he will renew a fierce debate over the most fundamental of political trade-offs: your money or your life.
The amounts at stake are vast. Unhealthy air covering most major American cities from Los Angeles to Boston contributes to thousands of deaths from cancer, lung failure, asthma and heart disease. But cleaning the air already costs billions of dollars a year, and actually bringing air quality to healthy levels nationwide would cost billions more.
The plan Bush has been working on, for example, could cost about $20 billion a year by the end of the century, although Administration officials concede that even the toughest options under consideration would not be enough to fully solve smog problems in Los Angeles and several other cities. Rival plans of environmentalists and their allies in Congress would cost billions more.
Politicians loathe issues that pose the stark and difficult choice between health and money, and both Congress and the White House have tried to avoid this one for more than a decade. But in the meantime, air quality across the nation has worsened, partially reversing the gains made since the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970.
Now the need to make a decision poses tremendous risks for both political parties. It also holds out the promise of substantial benefits.
Democrats are divided between those who see environmental issues as one of the few strong cards the party has left to play and those who worry that strong clean air measures could cost the jobs of thousands of blue-collar workers.
Republicans face their own split--traditional pro-business sentiments and aversion to regulation on the one hand, the hope of neutralizing environmental concerns as an election issue on the other.
For a decade, those opposing forces have led to legislative stalemate. Now, with Bush joining leading members of Congress in insisting that new clean air measures can no longer be delayed, many members of Congress and lobbyists on both sides are beginning to believe that this just might be the year that Washington gets serious again about clean air.
'Can Guarantee a Bill'
"I can't guarantee the outcome, but I can guarantee a bill will come to the floor," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), whose desire to control acid rain is one of the main factors impelling Congress to act. "There will be a debate and vote in the Senate."
In the House, "a whole number of things are coming together," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), who along with Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) is co-sponsoring a major clean air bill. "I'm very optimistic."
One of the changes, political analysts say, is renewed public concern about environmental issues. In opinion surveys, "you've seen about 20% of the public swing" from being relatively unconcerned to being considerably more concerned about environmental quality, said Republican analyst Kevin Phillips. Solid majorities now tell pollsters that they would be willing to accept higher costs and somewhat slower economic growth in return for a cleaner environment.
The public, said Richard Ayres, head of the environmentalist Clean Air Coalition, is reacting to a simple reality: "The quality of the air has gotten worse."
Airborne Lead Reduced
The Clean Air Act has achieved many of its original goals. Airborne lead, which once poisoned thousands of American children, has been eliminated as a serious health threat. Palls of soot no longer blacken skies over the Midwestern industrial belt. Levels of many pollutants have been dramatically reduced over the last two decades.
But one problem--smog--has proven intractable. After modest improvements during the 1970s and early 1980s, the country has now once again started losing ground.
Last summer, cities nationwide suffered the worst smog problems of the decade. Roughly 150 million Americans living in about 90 urban areas breathed unhealthy air during the hot summer of 1988.
The Environmental Protection Agency hopes the situation will improve over the next several years as old, heavily polluting cars are scrapped, but it concedes that unless further steps are taken, pollution will worsen again in the second half of the 1990s.
In addition to the worsening smog, both business leaders and environmental groups concede that the Clean Air Act has failed to provide an answer to the problem of toxic chemicals that are belched into the atmosphere by dozens of industries. Managing these chemicals, many of which cause cancer, will be a major focus of whatever clean air bills Congress considers this year.
Face Other Problems
Concerns over air pollution are rising even as the public is rebelling against a variety of other environmental problems, as diverse as syringes washing up on ocean beaches and pesticides turning up in food.