White House order mandates closer oversight of regulations that govern everyday life -- from food processing to mortgage insurance to air quality. President tightens rules of rulemaking

For better or worse, government regulation reaches into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. For example, this year various arms of the United States government will:

Work on rules revising the approved ways that food companies can barbecue meat.

Make final changes in regulations under which aid is given to states that provide special educational help to handicapped children.

Polish rules for issuing federal insurance on various kinds of adjustable-rate home mortgages.

Work on standards under which mining could take place in certain national recreational areas.

Study air quality in the cabins of planes operated by commerical airlines.

Descriptions of these regulatory actions occupy only a tiny part of a 616-page book the Reagan administration issued last week. ``Regulatory Program of the United States Government'' outlines 554 major regulatory steps the administration expects to take in the 12-month period ending March 31, 1986.

The book is the outgrowth of an executive order issued by President Reagan in January. It requires most departments and agencies to submit a list of all signifcant regulatory activity they plan for the year to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The order covers not only regulatory efforts already launched under the government's complex rules of administrative procedure but also ``prerulemaking actions,'' such as studies or advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.

Administration officials say having the OMB review regulatory plans will help nip intrusive and burdensome rules in the bud. The moves ``insure rulemaking activity . . . is consistent with law and the President's regulatory policies,'' says Joseph R. Wright Jr., acting OMB director. Previously, agencies did not have to seek OMB review until it was time to put the rules into effect.

Critics view the move as an attempt to stop needed regulations in their infancy, to thwart congressional oversight, and to keep the public from being able to participate effectively in rulemaking procedures.

``The purpose is to quash regulations, not issue regulations,'' says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a self-styled public-interest lobbying group. If the OMB knows about a new regulation in its early stages, it can cut needed funding from the agency's budget, she says. And the OMB can ``give companies and industries the chance to see whether they can put the kibosh'' on new rules, she says.

``There is no way of holding OMB accountable on its actions'' that kill budding regulations, says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a research group. ``It is an opportunity to really go after social regulations -- health, safety, and environmental'' that are harder for OMB to kill on cost-benefit grounds, he says.

Mr. Bass sees no problem with OMB acting as a clearinghouse on proposed regulation. But, he notes, Congress delegates rulemaking to a specific department ``because it carries the expertise.''

For him, the problem comes when OMB ``gets into mucking around in'' regulations, and the order ``allows them to expressly do that.''

Last month Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan wrote the President suggesting ``that OMB give more consideration to whether decisions are consistent with the intent of law and less with the consistency of those decisions with some nonstatutory program.''

Vice-President George Bush said last Thursday that he was ``puzzled by congressional criticism of this program on the grounds that it somehow usurps congressional oversight. It does nothing of the kind,'' he said. ``By publishing long-term agency plans and by improving the performance, knowledge, and accountability of Cabinet appointees, this program should improve the Congress's oversight ability.''

While this is the first time any administration has published a list of regulatory actions that reflects a president's views, another document, the Unified Agenda of Federal Regulations, lists rules formally proposed. But it does not list prerulemaking actions. And the items listed do not have White House approval and thus often do not take place at the time or in the manner described, administration officials say.

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