SINCE THE INTERIOR Department is in charge of writing the new strip-mining rules and the president is in charge of the Interior Department, it would seem to follow that the president could have a role, if he wanted it, in what those rules say when they are issued. But life is not that simple anymore, and the White House has gotten itself into a lawsuit by trying to influence the formulation of those rules. This is the first public round in what it likely to be a major quarrel among the White House, Congress and the bureaucracy over who gets to run the government.

The immediate issue in the strip-mining controversy -- whether the rules should be modified or delayed because they are inflationary -- is far less important than the principle involved. At least 50 agencies inside the executive branch have been given authority by Congress in recent years to issue regulations on particular subjects, such as strip mines, air and water pollution and industrial safety. The question is whether they are free to use that authority on their own or whether they are subject to presidential influence and guidance.

One school of thought contends that these agencies -- and the individuals specifically authorized to issue the rules, who are often Cabinet officers -- are required to do their jobs without accepting presidential direction. They can receive whatever information the White House wants to offer during public hearings, the argument goes, but in deciding what rules to write they are independent, like the regulatory commissions. That's what Congress is said to have intended when it passed legislation outlining broad principles and delegating the power to fill in the details to specific executive-branch agencies, ranging from OSHA to EPA to HEW.

That argument is being pushed by some members of Congress and many special-interest groups -- in particular environmental groups -- that lobbied hard to get legislation of this kind passed. They fear they may lose inside the executive branch some of the battles they thought they had won on Capitol Hill -- unless the agencies write the rules without reference to anything but the authorizing law. That's because larger concerns, such as the battle against inflation, could persuade a rule-maker who is subject to presidential direction not to go as fast as he otherwise might in requiring new and costly equipment to limit, say, air pollution.

The other school holds that the Constitution makes the president the government's chief executive officer and that Congress cannot diminish his power by giving part of it to his subordinates. It is fundamentally wrong, this argument goes, to cast the White House as an adversary or an outsider in rule-making proceedings that occur inside the administration over which it presides. Congress, it is said, never intended to do that or, if it did, it violated the Constitution as well as good management principles through its own thoughtlessness.

This position seems to us to be the far stronger in practical and, probably, constitutional terms. The last thing the government needs is an expansion of the bureaucracy that makes rules and policy without being politically responsible for its actions. The president is held accountable for what his subordinates do, and he should not be in the position of having no control over their actions. Regardless of what the courts do with the case challenging the president's right to intervene in these rule-making proceedings, Congress should act to end the controversy and make it clear that the president does, in fact, run the executive branch.