THE public might reasonably ask what's going on. Passage of the Clean Air Act of 1990 has been extolled by the Bush administration as a prime domestic achievement. The legislation toughened federal standards for a wide range of pollutants. Last week, however, the White House, acting through its Council on Competitiveness, opened a king-sized loophole for companies that want to exceed the emissions limits set down in the law.
Under the rules urged by the council and now issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, a company can increase its yearly rate of pollution by as much as 245 tons as soon as it applies to a state for a permit. No prior public notice of intention to increase pollution is required. The states can reject the application within 90 days, but meanwhile the pollution thickens.
This ability to exceed the legal limits on pollution was diligently sought by chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms, and other industries. They argued that such flexibility would allow them to undergo needed changes in plants and equipment. The Competitiveness Council, headed by Vice President Dan Quayle, lent a sympathetic ear. The EPA preferred public notification and a stricter limit on extra pollution. The two agencies fought it out for over a year, with President Bush finally coming down on t he side of the council - and of more pollution.
Perhaps business made a good argument. But what about the argument that the Clean Air Act was designed to set firm limits on pollution in the interest of purifying the air and enhancing the welfare of all Americans? Should that goal, overwhelmingly endorsed by the public, be tampered with out of the public's view in a tiny executive branch council open chiefly to industry lobbyists?
People might have expected the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 to live up to their billing. Or did the law's drafters in Congress and in the administration know all along that the final dimensions of the statute would be hammered out later, with an eye to pleasing industry?
House Democrats are now trying to deprive the Council on Competitiveness of its funding - a gesture that will never survive the president's veto. Mr. Bush, it should be remembered, chaired a similar council under Ronald Reagan.