LAST JULY a regional director for the federal Health and Human Services Department -- acting on written instructions from a deputy undersecretary -- mailed letters to Colorado public officials alerting them to the fact that the administration was "solidly against" passage of a bill then before Congress. The measure would have allowed doctors to prescribe heroin to relieve intractable pain in dying cancer patients. The HHS official says that he was not lobbying -- an illegal act for a federal employee -- only educating the public.

The HHS inspector general will now have to decide whether the regional director -- and those whose directions he followed -- crossed over the line between legitimate public education and illegal lobbying. His task should be made easier, however, by the fact that the Office of Management and Budget has put much time and effort over the last three years into making sure that do-gooders, citizens groups and government contractors don't use a penny of federal money for anything that might arguably be classified as lobbying. Since activities by federal workers have always, for good reasons, been even more tightly constrained than those of independent organizations doing work for the government, the OMB rules should provide a minimum set of guidelines for federal employees.

The OMB rules define lobbying to include "any attempt to influence . . . the enactment or modification of any pending Federal or state legislation through communication with any member or employee of the Congress or state legislature (including efforts to influence state or local officials to engage in similar lobbying activity)." Against this you might consider the deputy undersecretary's instructions telling regional directors to get in touch with governors, mayors and drug enforcement officials and ask them to "contact their local congressmen to ask for a 'No' vote." Are you struck by a correspondence between the two?

It's true that the deputy undersecretary followed up those instructions three days later with another missive asking the regional directors to destroy his previous cover memo and declaring it "inoperative." Nonetheless, he urged the directors to speed up their information "dissemination" on the heroin bill. The regional director then complied with a spate of letters warning that the bill "LEGALIZES HEROIN!!" -- a statement that seems disqualified as legitimate "public education" not only by its hyperbolic presentation but by the fact that it is untrue.

Many people have suspected that the administration's interest in curbing lobbying by nonprofit grantees and contractors was motivated far more by the New Right's campaign to "defund the left" than by a zeal for good government. Others, including ourselves, have supported the tighter rules on their own merits. It will be interesting to see how this administration applies these same good rules to its own members.