The confrontation that has been building between environmentalists and White House inflation-fighters spills over into Congress today, ashearings open on the administration's efforts to cut back on environmental regulation.
The two-day hearings before the Senate's environmental pollution sub- committee are likely to bring out in the open the simmering resentment of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), principal author of the nation's air and water pollution laws.
Muskie, a key administration ally in his capacity as Budget Committee chairman, has attacked White House economists for "trying to undo much of the environmental progress" stemming from the laws. He has accused them of trying to "set aside public health standards" in regulatory "reform" legislation now being drafted by Carter aides.
The hearings will be the first opportunity for Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Alfred Kahn, chairman of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, to answer such criticism publicly.
In recent months, they have sought to relax major regulations dealing with strip-mining, cotton dust, urban smog and cancer-causing water pollutants, describing them as inflationary and too burdensome to industry.
These efforts come at a time when the full impact of environmental laws, after years of court suits and congressional rewriting, is beginning to be felt. Air and water regulations, and workplace health and safety rules, affect every American and will cost industry billions of dollars in cleanup equipment.
Candidate Carter campaigned as an environmentalist and received strong support from now-disillusioned environmental groups. As inflation became the administration's principal preoccupation, environmental rules proved tempting targets
Last March, President Carter ordered agencies to assess the economic impact of major regulations, and he set up a Regulatory Analysis Review Group in the White House to make sure they complied. Last month, he set up a Regulatory Council, composed of the agencies themselves, to review major regulations.
While economic regulation is also to be examined, five out of seven rules targeted by White House economists involve environmental or health and safety issues.
Environmentalists have compared the effort to the Nixon administration's "Quality of Life Review" which gave the Office of Management and Budget unprecedented veto power over Environmental Protection Agency policies.
"These new regulatory reviews have been used as an economic veto of environmental, health and safety regulations," Muskie said in announcing hearings "to determine the merit, legality and political ramifications of intervention by White House economists."
The legal issue is already being tested in a suit filed by environmentalists over White House intervention in strip-mining rules. Another suit is expected over the relaxation of the smog standard.
Two environmental groups involved, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, will testify today along with a National Steel Corp. official and John Quarles, former EPA deputy administrator. Schultze, Kahn and EPA Administrator Douglas Costle will testify Tuesday.
Muskie told a University of Michigan audience on Feb. 14, "Yearly we face new opponents of environmental efforts. This is the year of the antiregulators. They are cloaked in the language of narrow, academic, costbenefit analysis."
He criticized the "regulatory reform bill" drafted by the White House as "a bone tossed to industry by bureaucratic economists." Requiring economic reviews for every regulation and policy will stop the Environmental Protection Agency "from doing anything else" and will create "a new bureaucracy in every agency to second-guess and water down congressionally mandated regulations."
The controversy over regulatory "reform" has deeply divided top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency. Costle, the appointed chairman of the Regulatory Council, has voiced complete support for the White House efforts.
Russell Train, former head of EPA, tried to distance himself from the White House, viewing EPA as a quasi-independent agency that should be free of political intervention. But Costle says, 'We are part of the president's anti-inflation program."
In a November speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, he said, "We can improve the regulatory process in a way that will reduce unnecessary costs... (emphasizing) the big problems and setting priorities (and) pruning the undergrowth of regulation of regulation which has sprung up over the years..."