The government's biggest union says the president's much-toured program to encourage and protect in-house critics of waste, mismanagement and corruption is about to die from lack of interest. The American Federation of Government Employees and the Institute for Policy Studies charge that the Merit Systems Protection Board has taken over -- and stifled -- functions of the Office of Special Counsel in an attempt to declaw the whistle-blower protection unit. Both the board and the counsel's office were born out of President Carter's civil service reform act.

After congressional budget cuts this summer, MSPB chief Ruth T. Prokop took over key personnel functions of the special counsel's office. Prokop said she acted because she is responsible for expenditures of the office. AFGE and other critics say the board wants to shut down the counsel's office.

MSPB officials say the union's action smacks of a "publicity stunt" and if it really wanted a test, it would take the case to court.

AFGE President Kenneth Blaylock has asked Carter to step in with moral and financial support for the Office of Special Counsel before its independence is destroyed. Failure to do so, the AFL-CIO leader says, would put Carter in the position of reneging on his campaign promise to provide safe passage through the bureaucracy for whistle blowers.