The Reagan administration is systematically cutting back its enforcement of hundreds of federal regulations.

Through budget cuts, agency reorganizations and specific policy directives, Reagan officials have stopped tough regulatory enforcement. From the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Transportation and the Department of Labor, agencies are relaxing their once vigorous oversight of businesses and local government compliance with federal regulations.

At some agencies, numbers alone indicate the trend. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened only four formal investigations into potential car defects during the first nine months of the Reagan administration. NHTSA launched an average of 15 cases each year during the Carter administration.

Meanwhile, at the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the number of average monthly inspections has declined 17 percent since Reagan assumed office--from 5,680 a month from January to October 1980 to 4,703 a month from February to August 1981. Average monthly follow-up inspections fell by 68 percent, from 1,012 to 326, while the number of serious citations issued dropped by 27 percent from 3,882 to 2,824 a month.

At other agencies, administration officials are issuing orders to make sure their employes understand the change. Last April, for instance, the associate solicitor at the Department of Interior sent a memo to the agency's field offices, directing government lawyers to institute a "new procedure" for bringing lawsuits against coal companies that violate the federal surface-mining laws.

Among other things, the associate solicitor wrote, if a lawsuit "conflicts with the secretary's goals of decreasing regulatory restraints on productivity . . . you should recommend that Office of Surface Mining vacate the underlying enforcement action and the consequent penalty."

Interior officials have since told Congress that they never intended to order agency lawyers to stop enforcing the government rules. Nonetheless, congressional aides say they know of no new memo that has been sent to countermand the orders of the old ones.

These directives come at the same time the administration is considering some overall reorganization schemes which many groups charge would cripple, if not kill, effective enforcement activities. In particular, the administration is considering a proposal to centralize in the Justice Department all civil rights enforcement programs--a move that would lead to the abolition of the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and considerably shrink the activities of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Government officials argue the change in enforcement policies is needed to reflect the reduced budgets under which their agencies must operate. Given the sharp budget cuts, these officials contend, the government can no longer be the ever-vigilant policeman.

Yet, labor representatives, consumer groups, environmentalists and other "public-interest" groups charge that the relaxation is just part of an overall campaign to respond to business complaints of overregulation, for the reduction in enforcement comes at the same time the administration is repealing old rules and blocking new ones.

"It's a three-fold program . . . all of which will inevitably lead to less enforcement and less protection," complains George Cohen, a lawyer for AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department and the United Steelworkers of America.

Environmentalists charge that the most dramatic shift in enforcement is taking place at the Environmental Protection Agency.

For one thing, the agency has abolished its Office of Enforcement, splitting up its functions into several different offices, a move that environmentalists say will make it more difficult to mount an aggressive enforcement effort.

What's more, top agency officials have indicated they intend to reduce the number of its enforcement attorneys stationed in Washington from 200 to 40 within the next two years. At the same time, regional attorneys have been directed to obtain headquarters' approval before beginning any enforcement actions.

Additionally, lawyers overseeing EPA's pesticide and toxic-substances rules have been directed to shift their resources from monitoring company compliance to "compliance assistance to the regulated industries."

These and other changes are reflected in the number of cases EPA is referring to the Justice Department for prosecution. During the first 10 years of its existence, EPA referred an average 200 cases a year to Justice. This year, EPA is referring cases at a rate that to date will total no more than 30 a year. Additionally, EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch has asked Justice to return more than 40 of the pending EPA cases at Justice. Gorsuch has said that these and earlier cases were frivolous and lacked adequate back-up material.

Like EPA, OSHA is also making big changes in its enforcement policies. Last July, Thorne Auchter, the assistant secretary of Labor in charge of OSHA, proposed revisions to the agency's enforcement program. Among other things, Auchter proposed that penalties for most serious violations be considered paid if the employer corrects the hazard. "Assessment and collection of penalties has resulted in antagonism among employers and the general public and has been an impediment to the successful attainment" of health and safety goals as set by Congress, Auchter said.

Although these changes are not final, many contend the drop in enforcement actions clearly indicates that OSHA inspectors have already begun to implement Auchter's proposals. "They see the proposals out, and they start to act fast to implement them because they want to keep their jobs," comments Eula Bingham, the head of OSHA during the Carter administration.

Changes in enforcement are also taking place at other agencies--but they have attracted less public attention.

The Department of Agriculture, heeding the objections of the industry it regulates, has stopped its 3 1/2-year-old practice of publicly listing the names of meat and poultry processing plants that repeatedly failed to meet government sanitation standards.

At the same time, the USDA has downgraded its food-safety compliance program. Processing plants no longer are reviewed and rated on their compliance with federal health and safety rules. Instead, government inspectors are rated on how well they are doing their jobs.

"They dropped the chronic hazards program because they don't want to make waves with the industry--they don't want to make the industry look bad," one Department of Agriculture employe said recently in complaining about the change in enforcement.

Meanwhile, the Comptroller of the Currency is testing a new examination procedure for national banks that consumer groups charge could lead to reduced bank compliance with federal truth-in-lending laws.

Under the new procedures, federal bank examiners plan to scrutinize a smaller number of loan disclosure statements to make sure that banks are giving accurate information to their customers--to make sure, for example, that the annual interest rate a bank says it is charging is not understated so consumers are actually paying more than they think in their monthly payments.

Instead, examiners will focus on the bank's own compliance management to make sure they have a system that will catch such mistakes.

Although the purpose of the change is to permit examiners to focus on the most important provisions of the consumer banking laws that prohibit discrimination in issuing loans, consumer groups fear that the revised procedures will make it easier for banks to make mistakes--and hide them from examiners--so they won't have to refund consumers for any overcharges. Meanwhile, women's rights groups charge that the Department of Labor's Office of Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) is not enforcing the back-pay requirements of its discrimination regulations. The rules say that when employers are found to have discriminated against a class of employers, they should, among other things, be required to reimburse employes for the pay they should have received absent discrimination. Even though Labor has indicated it may lift that requirement, the rule is still in effect. Even so, women's rights groups contend that the administration has quit requiring back-pay in its current settlements.

The agency denies this charge, but declined to give figures on how many cases had been settled.

Further, government employes at several agencies say administration officials are not adhering to the rules set out by the Freedom of Information Act. The administration is trying to get Congress to make some changes in the law to make it more difficult for the public to obtain federal documents. Even though Congress has not yet considered these changes, lawyers are reported to be refusing to supply many documents that have been released in the past, making the person requesting the document first prove he or she is entitled to them.

Additionally, some groups that have requested documents say they have never received a response from the government noting their request--as is required under the FOIA rules.

Getting federal officials to enforce rules on the books is not a new problem. Interested groups and affected parties have filed frequent and numerous lawsuits in previous administrations, arguing that the government laywers were ignoring the rules.

But the situation has deteriorated in the Reagan administration, these same groups charge.

For example, civil rights groups have been fighting the government for more than four years to get federal education officials to comply with court-set deadlines and timetables to respond to discrimination complaints.

Under the Carter administration, officials rarely completed any of their discrimination investigations within the 90-day time period set by the courts. However, under the Reagan administration, "it is considerably worse than it was," says civil rights lawyer Elliott Lichtman. In fact, Lichtman charged in a complaint filed in court, the process almost came to a complete halt when Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell placed "an indefinite hold" on 80 to 100 draft letters citing violations of a civil rights law. The letters had been the result of long investigations by the department's regional officers, were reviewed by the assistant secretary for civil rights and were ready to be mailed, pending "final review" by the secretary when Bell stopped them. They finally were released--after Lichtman filed his complaint in court.

Failure to meet deadlines or monitor industry activities could deteriorate even further if Congress goes along with President Reagan's plan to cut the current federal budget by another 12 percent.

John S. R. Shad, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, has told Congress that if his agency's $82.8 million budget is cut by another $9.9 million, enforcement activity will have to be reduced approximately 15 percent, and some active investigations and pending cases will be terminated. What's more, investment companies and advisers as well as broker-dealers no longer will be inspected on a periodic cycle, but rather when there is reason to suspect a problem.

Similarly, at the National Labor Relations Board a budget cut of 12 percent would make it very difficult--if not impossible--for the agency to investigate unfair-labor practices, officials say.

"We wouldn't be able to move any cases," says Robert P. Hunter, a new member of the five-member board. "It would really hurt our effectivness."