Federal layoffs are a "nonproblem" being exaggerated by a hostile news media, Donald J. Devine, the Reagan administration's chief personnel officer, said yesterday, adding that reductions in the federal work force so far had been accomplished "primarily through attrition."
"We've done this the most humane way possible, and if people in the press stopped hyping it up, people wouldn't be so upset about a nonproblem," Devine told reporters on the lawn of a Potomac home at a reception for Montgomery County Republican precinct workers.
Later inside, Devine told party workers that "it's Republicans who are working to build this country up, and the media that's trying to build divisions."
His attacks on the press ignored the debate within Montgomery's Republican party over the issue of federal layoffs. Some moderate county Republicans fear that federal workers--nearly a quarter of the work force in the county--could cause an election-year backlash against local Republican candidates.
About 2,300 federal workers in the Washington Metropolitan area have lost their jobs since the start of Reagan's term.
Montgomery's only Republican member of the state senate, Howard A. Denis, refused to appear at yesterday's reception because of his disagreement with Devine's layoff policy and its impact on the county. Earlier last week, Del. Luiz Simmons, another moderate Republican, opened his campaign for county executive by criticizing the layoff policy and the "anxieties" it has caused in the community.
Denis, Simmons and other Montgomery Republicans say they want to campaign by putting distance between themselves and the federal reductions-in-force. In a county with a 2-to-1 Democratic voter registration, moderate Republicans traditionally have downplayed their party label while concentrating on local issues.
But yesterday Devine predicted, "This program of the administration is not going to drag the local races down. Our program is working. We have nothing to apologize for."
Later, Devine attempted to explain to a reporter that he didn't mean RIFs were a "nonproblem" but that "the press is making it a greater problem. The policy that we've used to reduce the size of government in the country has been through attrition." He said that only four-tenths of one percent of the reductions so far were through layoffs.
Montgomery Democrats hope to use the federal layoffs issue, and President Reagan's perceived unpopularity in the county, to counter the Republican Party's campaign to capture the executive's office and some seats on the county council.
Devine's appearance, and Denis' public boycott, brought media--including four television stations--to record what is usually a routine annual political event, the honoring of party precinct workers before their door-to-door fundraising drive. Most of the county and statewide Republican hopefuls attended, many anxious to have precinct workers distribute their literature when soliciting funds.
Paul Clark, Montgomery County Republican central committee chairman, said that this year's campaign "should not be a referendum on President Reagan and his 16-month-old administration" but rather "a drive against incumbents and what we call the county Democratic machine."
"There is no controversy here," said Allan Levey, the state GOP chairman. "We just happen to live in this area where RIFs are most prevalent. But the Reagan economic program is vital to this country."