Reagan’s Water Torture

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When President Reagan vetoed the renewal of the Clean Water Act a second time, he might as well have hung a sign around his neck that said, “Hit Me.”

Congress certainly obliged. Pow! House votes 401 to 26. Pow! Senate votes 86 to 14. The successful program to control pollution from sewage and other sources, with a special fund for San Francisco Bay, now is the law. It took a lot of unnecessary high jinks to get there.

This has been one of the more curious episodes in the President’s career. Congress approved the bill without a single dissenting vote last fall, and Reagan vetoed it. Congress passed the bill overwhelmingly in January, and Reagan vetoed it, acknowledging at the time that he would be overridden. He denounced the program as full of pork-barrel projects, and offered a $12-billion alternative that contained essentially the same pork as Congress’ $18-billion version, saving money only by ending the program sooner. Then he said that the effort to clean up the nation’s waters is “a national priority of the highest order.”


Throughout Reagan’s career in government, his aides have fought some of their hardest fights in trying to avert the embarrassment of veto overrides. But no effort at all was made this time. And usually when a program that he did not like passed by such overwhelming margins, Reagan would quietly allow it to go into law. Since last fall, Congress has cast a cumulative vote of 1,898 in favor of the Clean Water Act to 60 against.

It is puzzling why Reagan pretended to fight a battle that he could not win and seemed to have no heart for. What is important now, though, is that the nation once again has a strong program on the books for continuing the clean-up of our streams, lakes and estuaries.