Washington — A long-simmering debate over President Reagan's ``hands off'' management style has broken into a full boil on Capitol Hill. As lawmakers waded through the inch-thick Tower Commission report, President Reagan's tendency to delegate great authority to his staff came under sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republicans yesterday. They said the President needed to sharpen his oversight of his White House aides, and that he needed to replace staff members who had proved untrustworthy. ``For the good of the country,'' said Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, ``he's got to change his style.''
A good place to start, they said, would be to replace Donald Regan as chief of staff.
``It seems to me that if you don't protect the President, if you don't serve him well, you ought to move on,'' said Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas. ``But the President has got to get the moving van in.''
The Tower Commission cleared Reagan from any participation in a cover-up, a fact that clearly relieved some Republicans and tended to focus the brunt of criticism on the White House staff. ``This is not a Watergate situation,'' said Sen. Paul Trible (R) of Virginia, a member of the Senate's special panel set up to investigate the Iran-contra affair. ``There is no evidence whatsoever that there was any misconduct on the part of the President.''
But it did suggest that, had the President kept his staff on a shorter leash, numerous alleged violations of the law would not have occurred. Thus few seemed ready to defend Reagan's apparently relaxed approach to his Presidency. ``Whatever the reason, the fact is it's a failure of management according to the Tower Commission, and I think they're absolutely right,'' said Dante Fascell, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rep. James Courter (R) of New Jersey argued that the primary blame lay with the President's staff. ``He has to have some basic information about what is going on and he didn't have it,'' Representative Courter said.
But dissatisfaction with the President's style seemed to run deep among members of both parties. Senator Dole, who has been quick to jump to the President's defense throughout the unfolding controversy, was asked whether the President was in control. He merely responded, ``I think so.''
Others were less equivocal. ``If the President can't take care of the details, he should get someone who can,'' said Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D) of Connecticut.
Few lawmakers quarreled with the report's conclusion that the national-security adviser should not be subject to confirmation by the Senate. Many of them did, however, repeat their wish that the President would consult more closely with Congress on foreign policy matters.
The report itself is not expected to undermine the President's ability to deal with Congress in the months ahead. But an increasing number of lawmakers believe that the administration is entering its final years on ``automatic pilot,'' and that it has been politically disabled by the controversy.
That perception is certain to damage administration efforts to get congressional consent for controversial programs, such as aid to the Nicaraguan contras. ``I suppose it would be an understatement to say that it doesn't help any,'' said Senator Nunn of the White House efforts to obtain congressional approval of $105 million in new funds for the contras.