THE WORD IS OUT: Those who violate laws this administration doesn't like probable will not get cought and, if caught, will not suffer serious penalty.
While many administration efforts to change environmental, worker and consumer protection statutes have been blocked, its lax enforcement policy has weakened the laws as seriously as if they had been amended.
This can show up in explicit policy statements, as when Occupational Safety and Health Administrator Thorne Auchter announced "our job is health and safety. We are not interested in crime and punishment."
Sometimes it's evident in special treatment for actual or potential violators. EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch, for example, assured a small New Mexico operation called Thriftway Refiners that it wouldn't be prosecuted if it violated federal regulations governing lead in gasoline. In another case, top EPA officials not only hastily negotiated a settlement with Inmont Co., one of the companies responsible for a toxic dumpsite that caught fire, but also agreed that EPA would testify in the company's defense if citizens sued for damages arising from the fire.
The policy appears most clearly, however, in the budget, personnel, and enforcement statistics of the agencies involved. Although these figures are not always easy to get, some obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, budget analyses, and congressional investigations tell a remarkable tale:
* In 18 months the Environmental Protection Agency has reduced the number of cases referred for enforcement action by more than 70 percent. Inspections for clean air violations fell by 65 percent. Since January 1981, the enforcement division has been reorganized four times, and three enforcement chiefs have been fired (two appointed and fired by Gorsuch). According to internal memoranda, the enforcement section is faced with the loss of 43 percent of its field staff.
* At the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created to protect workers, Auchter quickly eliminated unannounced inspections for 80 percent of manufacturing firms. The number of violations cited fell 49 percent, inspections declined 10 percent, followup inspectons dropped 55 percent, and fines imposed for violations fell 77 percent (heavy fines -- over $10,000 -- plummeted 90 percent). Auchter has proposed to forgive penalties for violations that are later corrected, thus removing one incentive to correct hazards before they are discovered by inspectors.
* At the Food and Drug Administration, charged with protecting us from dangerous and mislabeled foods, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices and man-made radiation, citations over 18 months dropped 88 percent, and seizures of dangerous products fell 65 percent.
* In 1980, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, enforcer of auto safety, initiated 118 engineering analyses of possible defects. Last year 19 analyses were begun.
* The enforcement staff of the Consumer Product Safety Commission -- responsible for protecting the public from hidden hazards in toys, appliances, power equipment, household chemicals and hundreds of other products -- has been reduced 46 percent since the Reagan administration took office. Recalls have been cut 60 percent.
* The Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining (OSM) is supposed to regulate coal mining and enforce land-reclamation requirements. In six Eastern states, the number of inspections fell 38 percent between 1980 and 1982, while violations charged fell 62 percent. In six Western states where OSM oversees state- administered programs, OSM was required by law to conduct 162 inspections, but it conducted only 40 and charged only three violations.
The adversarial process of inspecion, investigation and prosecution is clumsy and expensive. Reform is both desirable and feasible. Systems for internal review, independent compliance audits, and compliance incentives can be developed to reduce enforcement burdens.
But reform requires trust and good faith. Those subject to the law and those the law protects must first believe the law will be enforced one way or another. This administration has lost all claim to our trust.
It arrived openly seeking to weaken or repeal environmental, worker, and consumer protection laws and, without waiting for the process of legitimate change, quickly reduced enforcement of those laws. That is not reform; that is lawlessness. It has injured the laws involved, the agencies that administer them, the public they are meant to protect and the chances for constructive reform.