The Carter administration is seriously considering a new system of White House surveillance and coordination of major regulatory plans as part of its upcoming anti-inflation program.
No firm decisions have been made, sources said yesterday, and it is not even clear whether the president's latest inflation message, which is expected shortly, will include more than exhortatory language about keeping down the costs of government regulation.
But many government regulators have expressed fears that White House review could lead to politically or economically motivated delays or cutbacks in environmental, health and safety regulations, which some of the president's economic advisers say are too costly.
"The regulators view this as a major intervention from the White House because of what they fear it might portend," said one official who acknowledged that the absence of any decisions thus far has created a fertile climate for unfounded rumors.
"The problem," this official said, "is the White House is not coordinated."
A key question - as yet unanswered - is whether the regulatory section of the anti-inflation package will be symbolic or substantive. There has been talk for months of trying to reduce the costs of regulation, which the Commerce Department has estimated at $100 billion a year. Some moves have been made in that direction, but without any overall policy or mechanism for carrying it out.
To overcome this, White House advisers are suggesting a "regulatory calendar," or master list of all major regulatory actions that are contemplated over a specific period, such as one year. This would go beyond the present procedure, started less than a year ago, for White House review of regulations as they come along, a process that produced a bitter dispute within the administration last summer over rules to protect workers from cotton dust.
What would happen after the "calendar" is prepared is unclear. The idea, several sources said, is that the very exercise of compiling such a list would lead to more focus on priorities and costs.
But there also is talk of presidential intervention in at least some cases and the question of who - the regulators or presidential economic advisers - would have the primary role in the process. Office of Management and Budget officials indicated yesterday that OMB would have the key monitoring role, including recommendations for cost-cutting changes.
As for presidential involvement, one official said there still are questions about the political consequences of intervention and whether President Carter has the legal power to inject himself into a process that Congress specifically put in the hands of an agency.
Only executive department regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Food and Drug Administration would be affected; independent regulatory bodies would not be covered.
Heads of major executive department regulatory agencies were consulted formally on the plans for the first time at a White House meeting late Monday. One source said afterward that many of them were "enraged" at what they heard, but another said a "more positive" attitude was emerging yesterday as they took up a White House invitation to draft their own ideas for inclusion in the anti-inflation plan.
The current White House proposals appear to be considerably softened from earlier drafts, one of which drew a blistering attack yesterday from Rep. Paul G. Rogers (D-Fla.), chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment.
This proposal would have permitted OMB to set limits on the number of new regulations that executive department regulatory agencies could propose, with only the president having the power to override OMB's decision, said Rogers, who labeled the idea "absurd" and illegal.
An administration official said the idea was advanced some time ago but dropped quickly, as was an idea for a moratorium on regulatory actions that could have a substantial impact on inflation. White House officials said such ideas are definitely not under consideration now.
A White House aide said, however, that the president's proposals to bring down the costs of regulation are likely to be "tough" and controversial, even though no final decision has been made on their shape.
If they are tough in the sense of bringing cost-cutting considerations to bear on the regulatory process, the outlines of the expected dissent were apparent yesterday in comments both from within government and outside it.
"It all appears to add up to some kind of cork on the regulatory process," complained George Taylor, director of the AFL-CIO's occupational safety and health program. "We'd be very much opposed to it if it embodies an incursion by the president or his economic advisers into the regulatory process"
Said Michael Pertschuk, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, an independent agency that would not be included in the review process: "I'm concerned that in talking about the burdens of regulation that adequate attention has to be paid to the benefits of regulation, and it's not clear that that has been done or that a balanced approach will be taken."