In seeking to relax affirmative action requirements for federal contractors, the Reagan administration is fulfilling a major political objective eagerly sought by conservatives and the business community. Unfortunately, the rule changes now proposed are regressive and will only make it more difficult for women, blacks, and Hispanics to gain access to jobs where taxpayer dollars are involved.
It is no secret that conservative action groups have been working behind the scenes to scuttle existing rules. In a report issued earlier this year, for example, the Washington-based Heritage Foundation argued that ''the top priority for legal policy in the Reagan administration is to establish a new definition of discrimination.''
The current modifications are actually the third set of rule changes proposed by the administration involving federal contracts, following two earlier proposals in 1981 and 1982. The new proposals grew out of public comments on those earlier plans. When issued in the next month or so - after clearance by the Office of Management and Budget - the new rules will become final.
What will the new rules do? According to the New York Times, the following changes are asked:
* The federal government would seek legal relief only for individuals who could actually prove discriminatory acts. Currently the government can provide relief for ''affected classes'' - i.e., all persons believed to have suffered as the result of discriminatory actions.
* Only firms having a federal contract of $100,000 and 100 employees or more would have to prepare affirmative action plans. Current regulations require plans from firms with contracts of $50,000 and 50 employees.
* Construction firms would only have to make a ''good faith effort'' to fill a total of 6.9 percent of their work force with women. Currently contractors must meet this quota in each aspect of a construction job - plumbing work, electrical work, and so on.
A case can probably be made for reducing the paperwork involved in complying with federal programs. But such legitimate regulatory reform as sought by the general business community must not come at the expense of the affirmative action programs themselves.
What must not be overlooked is that the jobs and contracts involved in such programs are federal programs paid for by all US taxpayers, including minorities. Current rules - written by successive administrations, it might be noted - have gone far in bringing more minorities into federally funded jobs. Congress should look into the administration's proposals to ensure that there is no retreat from gains already won.