The Clean Water Act was "pocket vetoed" by Reagan in November of 1986. (A bill is "pocket vetoed" if the President does not sign it within 10 days, excluding Sundays, after receiving it while Congress is not in session.) Reagan refused to sign the bill because of its cost. The bill had passed both houses of Congress unanimously. But in a memorandum of disapproval published by the president at the time, he refused to sign the bill because of its large price tag. The bill would have put aside $20 billion toward water treatment, including $174 million for that in California over eight years. Congress was not given the opportunity to overturn the president’s decision.
In his reasons for vetoing the bill, Reagan said that he hoped to rework the details and allocation of funds more specifically before agreeing to a bill. He said “With the backlog of needed treatment plants financed in major part by the federal government since 1972, it now is necessary for the federal government to reduce its expenditures and complete the transition from federal to state and local responsibility.”
Reagan's veto drew criticism from many fronts. After the bill died, New York's Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a leading proponent of the bill, told the media that the new Democratic-controlled Congress would begin working on new legislation in 1987 and that it will be able to override any future veto. Reagan even received criticism from his own party. Republican Senator Robert T. Stafford of Vermont, the outgoing chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters that Reagan "was obviously acting on very bad advice. If he was dissatisfied with the cost, then he should wait to see what the Democratic Congress comes up with next year." Leaders of environmental groups also expressed anger and disappointment over the veto and promised to work with the new Congress to revive the legislation.
In his veto message, Reagan said he was "committed to the act's objectives" but that the legislation "far exceeds acceptable levels" of spending. Reagan recommended $6 billion to finish the sewage treatment projects that had been started with federal funds, the major expenditure called for in the act. Congress had authorized $18 billion to finish those projects and $2 billion for other miscellaneous projects. Reagan pledged to cooperate with the next Congress to rework those features of the bill that he liked. These included expanded pollution enforcement in some areas, and also "an easing of the regulatory and financial burden on cities in dealing with storm water discharges."
True to its word, new legislation was once again passed in early 1987, and it was vetoed by Reagan once again. On February 3, 1987, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to override President Reagan's veto by a vote of 401 to 26. The veto override also passed in the Senate. Leading up to the veto override, Republicans were almost as critical as Democrats of the Reagan. Representative Arlan Strageland of Mississippi said "I believe President Reagan has listened to the wrong advice. This body needs to send a strong message to the President and the American people that this Congress won't tolerate delays in cleaning up American waters."
The new bill called for spending $18 billion through 1994, to provide state and local governments with money for construction of sewage treatment plants. It also provide an additional $2 billion for other pollution control programs. In a show of bipartisan unity on the issue, the House passed the bill on January 8, 1987 by a vote of 406 to 8, while the Senate endorsed it two weeks later by a 93-to-6 vote.
President Reagan, in his veto statement, had said that the bill would increase domestic spending and frustrate his efforts to cut the Federal budget deficit. He supported a compromise bill, defeated in the Senate, that would have cost $12 billion.