Like the infamous Exxon tanker that produced the worst oil spill in American history, tough new reforms aimed at averting future oil spills seem to have run aground.

The difference is that the current disaster occurred in Congress rather than in the waters off Alaska.What happens next will constitute more than a test of Congress' ability to rise above the short-sightedness of some of its members, who sometimes seem to care more about preserving their own political prerogatives than they do about producing laws.

This sad affair also could pose a test of the public's ability not to forget serious problems as time goes by but to keep demanding change.

At the center of this situation is legislation that would: set higher liability standards for oil companies; require drug and alcohol testing for maritime workers; give the Coast Guard unlimited authority to take over cleanup operations; and create a $1 billion cleanup fund through a tax on oil.

As recently as a month ago, these reforms seemed to be well on their way to approval, having passed the Senate and been accepted by the Merchant Marine and Public Works committees in the House of Representatives.

But now the legislation is stalled indefinitely by a squabble between the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Energy Committee over which group should have jurisdiction.

The longer the House delays, the more chance it gives the powerful oil lobby to try to kill the reforms. In view of such petty bickering and indecisiveness, no wonder no new oil spill law has been put on the books in 14 years.

The public should let Congress know it has not forgotten about the Exxon Valdez oil spill last spring or the way it exposed shortcomings in techniques for preventing and combatting such disasters.