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In an unusual move, President Clinton signed an executive order a few days ago to nullify Republican-backed environmental legislation that hasn't been passed yet by Congress - and may never be.

Under the order, companies doing business with the federal government must continue to publicly disclose the kinds and amounts of toxic chemicals they release into the environment.Since that is already the law, the Clinton action seems like a waste of time and effort.

Of course, the House of Representatives - in its drive to slash federal regulations - recently passed a measure weakening the disclosure law. But it is doubtful the Senate will go along, since the law only asks for a yearly report and does not require any other action.

The House-passed measure is a poor one. The disclosure rule has caused many companies to clean up their act simply because telling what chemicals they release into the environment may hurt their public image.

A more simple and inoffensive environmental law - just tell what you are doing - is hard to imagine. Not only is the Senate unlikely to agree with the House, but Clinton has promised a veto that would likely hold up even if the Senate passed such an ill-advised bill.

In this instance, the president is on the right side and appears to be winning the argument. So why the need for an executive order before anything has happened and probably won't happen?

Observers say the order probably is a kind of political theater. Clinton may be trying to dramatize his differences with Congress and at the same time appear decisive and active on a popular issue.

Unfortunately, appearing decisive doesn't count for much if the executive order merely amounts to an empty gesture that wasn't really needed in the first place.