One of the oldest puzzlers in government - who watches the watchdog - has popped up again in the traditionally troublesome area of mine safety enforcement.

Congress passed legislation last year combining and toughening laws protection some 500,000 coal, metal and hard-rock miners from on-the-job hazards.

One step Congress took was to transfer the Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration from the production-oriented Interior Department to the Labor Department.

Another was the creation of a presidentially appointed five-member Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which would be, in effect, an independent monitor of the Labor Secretary's enforcement actions.

Now it turns out the selection process and preparation of a final list of candidates for the five highly paid commission seats is being directed by Labor Secretary Ray Marshall.

Diana Rock, associate personnel director at the White House, said yesterday that President Carter would depend heavily on Marshall's recommendations and that she expected Marshall will single out his choices.

Marshall has already announced that his choice for the new position of assistant secretary for mine safety and health is Robert B. Lagather, now a deputy solicitor in the department.

Labor's heavy involvement in producing the list of names from which Carter's five nominees most likely will come has touched off concern on Capitol Hill and among groups monitoring MESA.

"There is a fair amount of concern that this is going on," said Robert Vagley, House Labor subcommittee counsel. "The purpose of the commission is to be an independent, critical observer reviewing the secretary's actions."

Added J. Devitt McAteer, director of the Center for Law and Social policy's public-interest mine safety project:

"We feel it is inappropriate and incorrect for the Department of Labor to get up the master list of nominees for the body that will oversee the secretary's enforcement work. It is not in keeping with the spirit of President Carter's objectivity in the regulatory process."

Both McAteer and Vagley expressed additional concern that more delay in the nomination and Senate confirmation process will prevent the commission from starting its work when the law takes effect in two months.

Both men noted administrative problems that developed at the Interior Department following passage of the coal mine health and safety act of 1969 - delays in enforcement of regulations and growth of a huge backlog of penalty-assessment cases against violators.

Lagather acknowledged that some problems may arise, but he insisted that neither he nor Marshall will single out the favored candidates for the $50,000-per-year jobs.

"I don't even know all the names - we have 50 or 60 so far. We have some fine recommendations; some of the names I have seen are top people . . . It is going to be a tough selection process and there is tremendous interest in it," he said.

The prospect of nomination to the commission has set off an intense behind-the-scenes chase for political support among candidates.

In addition to a number of Labor Department staff assistants, names most frequently heard as candidates include Robert Barrett, the present administrator of MESA; Harry Paterick, former secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers; Al Lawson, an attorney with the United Steelworkers; federal administrative law judges Joseph B. Kennedy and William Fauver; Clarice Feldman, former associate counsel at the UMW, and several congressional staff assistants.

Lagather said that the department's nomination process will be closed next week and that all resumes will be sent to Marshall for transmission to the White House.

He rejected the idea that the department may be involved in a conflict of interest in surpervising the selection of commission members.

"The White House felt something had to be done to identify the people most qualified for these nominations. We are trying to be very careful about how we are doing it," Lagather said.

With the commission scheduled to start work in two months, Lagather said that no staff members will be hired until the commissioners themselves are named, even though that could lead to delays in handling cases in which the secretary's enforcement actions are challenged.

"I want the commission to be operative on the morning of March 10." he said, "because a lot of cases will be hired until the comissioners themselves are named, even though that could lead to delays in handling cases in which the secretary's enforcement actions are challenged.

"I want the commission to be operative on the morning of March 10." he said, "because a lot of cases will hit immediately. But we're making no search for staff because we think the commissioners should choose on their own."