The Reagan administration is likely to consider transfering enforcement of major environmental, health and safety programs back to the states, as part of a fundamental redirection of federal regulation, James C. Miller III, director of the vice president's regulatory task force, said yesterday.
"There is a strong feeling on the part of the White House staff that we ought to be decentralizing" regulatory enforcement, Miller said in an interview.
In addition, he said, there is strong sentiment within the administration to change the way businesses are regulated by allowing them to meet federal standards the best way they see fit rather than having the government tell them how to comply with the law.
The opportunity to give states greater authority to control air quality will come when Congress begins to rewrite the federal Clean Air Act later this year, Miller noted. Fundamentally, states should have the right to determine how clean they want their air to be, unless that causes serious regional air quality problems, he said.
The secretary of labor already has the authority to transfer responsibility for health and safety regulation from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to state agencies that have satisfactory regulatory programs, Miller noted.
"I expect OSHA will spend the first couple of years trying to do a better job of chewing what they've already bitten off rather than biting off more," Miller said.
Final decision on the new roles of OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency have not yet been made within the administration, Miller said, but the agencies' enforcement activities will necessarily be cut back, assuming the budget cuts proposed by President Reagan are enacted, he added. The heads of EPA and OSHA and other regulatory agencies will have to choose which laws and regulations to enforce and which to ignore, he said.
In OSHA's case, it will concentrate on the most hazardous situations instead of trying to police every industry and plant, he said. "If there are fewer resources, you have to choose from among the biggest targets."
The transfer of federal programs and responsibilities to the states is a cornerstone of the Reagan philosophy, Miller noted. In addition to its interest in decentralizing environmental and health regulation, the administration has proposed a combination of federal educational and community development programs into several bloc grants, leaving states and localities with the freedom to distribute the funds according to their priorities.
This devolution of authority, to use the administration's word, would reverse more than a decade of legislation that centralized responsibility at the federal level on the grounds that many states weren't taking care of environmental and workplace hazards or the needs of the poor.
Miller's prediction of a strong move toward regulatory decentralization was echoed by Murray Weidenbaum, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, in a speech prepared for delivery yesterday evening.
"Rather than telling industry exactly how they must clean the air, the government could set a level of air quality and tell industry to meet that level in the best way it know how. The nation could thus get the same air quality more efficiently and at lower cost," Wiedenbaum said.
He said the administration was not turning its back on regulatory responsibilities. "We will not discard regulation which thoughtfully serves the public interest," he said, but the air quality regulations that carry out the Clean Air Act aren't in that category, he suggested. "We mean to improve the Clean Air Act," he added.