Washington — The tussle for a few documents at the bottom of a 787,000 page-high stack of paper is only the latest in a series of disputes between Congress and President Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency chief, Anne M. Gorsuch.
The battle also sets the stage for an historic confrontation in the courts between Congress and the White House itself.
On Dec. 16, the US House of Representatives voted to hold Mrs. Gorsuch in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over 74 internal documents. A House committee had requested those papers, along with three-quarters of a million other EPA documents. The committee said it needed them to determine whether EPA was vigorously enforcing a hazardous-waste law.
Over the past two years, Congress and the Reagan administration have not exactly seen eye to eye on environmental policy. The two have squabbled over a wide range of EPA-related budget and policy issues.
First of all, Congress has refused to go along with all of Reagan's proposed slashes in EPA spending. This year, for instance, Congress voted $66 million more for EPA research and development than President Reagan requested. Partly for this reason, Reagan vetoed the EPA bill in October.
But EPA has taken some heavy swipes from the Reagan administration's budget cutters, with its operating budget declining 38 percent since the last year of the Carter presidency.
Congressional critics say the agency's budget has been too drastically cut to enable the EPA to effectively enforce rules that are on the books.
''They have seriously weakened the capacity of government to manage clean air , water, and hazardous-waste dumps,'' says Gaylord Nelson, chairman of the Wilderness Society and a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin.
Critics also charge that EPA enforcement actions against polluters have dropped drastically. From 1977 through 1980, EPA referred an average of 278 civil actions a year to the Justice Department, estimates a Democratic congressional staff aide. This year, at its current rate, EPA will file 97 such cases, he estimates.
Mrs. Gorsuch counters enforcement is measured not by numbers but by results, which can include correcting violations at an informal discussion level, without starting formal enforcement procedures.
''Measured by this standard, the enforcement effort existing at EPA prior to this administration was not particularly good,'' Mrs. Gorsuch told Congress at a midyear review hearing.
Congress has also been piqued by administration efforts to cut the federal grants that help states run their environmental programs. President Reagan asked for 20 percent cuts in such grants for fiscal 1983, but Congress voted the money back into the EPA appropriations bill, which passed Sept. 29.
Mrs. Gorsuch has said the administration intends to eliminate these grants, while at the same time turning over more responsiblity for pollution control to the states under the banner of ''new federalism.''
The Justice Department, ironically, finds itself in the precarious position of defending and attacking executive privilege at the same time. The department is obliged to press criminal charges against Mrs. Gorsuch, since she's been found in contempt of Congress. But the department is already pursuing a countersuit challenging Congress' action.
That civil suit says the administration has already given Congress 99 percent of the EPA documents asked for, and claims the few remaining papers might compromise ongoing enforcement actions.
Justice officials announced they will delay prosecution of Mrs. Gorsuch until the civil suit is settled, making it the likely forum for debate on the limits of executive privilege.