As its silver anniversary approaches on Saturday, the United
States Environmental Protection Agency is hunkering beneath an
ominous budgetary cloud.
This week, the House and Senate were set to approve $5.7 billion
for the agency, 14 percent below last year's budget and nearly 23
percent below President Clinton's request. In addition, the
conference bill deprives the agency of final veto power over the
dumping of potentially hazardous materials into wetlands and
weakens community right-to-know rules.
To Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) of California, who has guided the EPA
budget through the House, the cut sends the agency a message:
Reduce burdensome regulations. To Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of
Missouri, who has led the Senate effort, the cut is a byproduct of
efforts to balance the budget and forces EPA to set priorities.
But to William Ruckelshaus, the agency's founding director, by
taking a meat axe to the EPA's budget, Congress is in danger of
perpetuating the very problems it is trying to solve. He
acknowledges the agency's progress in cleaning the air and water.
But in an interview, Mr. Ruckelshaus - currently chairman of the
board of Browning-Ferris Industries, a waste-management company -
points to what he sees as key organizational problems beyond
limited agency funding.
He says EPA's troubles - a lack of public trust, slow progress
in cleaning up waste sites, and horror stories of agency
bureaucrats tromping on "the little guy" - are largely of
Congress's making. They won't be solved, he says, until lawmakers
give the EPA a clear, unified assignment and the authority and
flexibility to carry it out.
"I'm not defending any particular level of expenditure,"
Ruckelshaus says, "because it depends on what you're spending the
money for." Yet lawmakers "are telling the agency not to do what a
previous Congress has told it to do, or they're saying, 'We're not
going to give you enough money to do what we earlier told you to
do.' The sensible thing is to say, 'We're going to change your
assignment, and we're going to give you more authority to decide
within that assignment what's most important.' "
Ruckelshaus, whom President Nixon appointed as EPA's first
administrator in 1970, concedes that giving the EPA more authority
runs counter to the inclinations of the Republican Congress. He
holds, however, that the agency's excesses can be traced to both
its friends and its foes, leading to the wide swings in support on
Capitol Hill during EPA's 25-year history. Its friends, worried
about what would happen if leadership of the agency fell into
"unfriendly" hands, wrote a dozen laws - from the Clean Air Act to
the Superfund legislation - that spell out the agency's tasks in
minute detail and set what he sees as often unrealistic timetables. …