FROM THE WAY Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) and some environmentalists have been complaining, one might think their quarrel with the administration's economists is on a par with the impoundment struggles of the Nixon years. It's not. Some of Mr. Carter's inflation-fighters may have little enthusiasm for environmental, health and safety laws. But the White House has not embarked on anything comparable to Mr. Nixon's systematic campaign to flout Congress and shelve programs at will. And at a time of economic anxieties and concern about regulation in general, we'd think that nervous environmentalists would have every reason not to make the current agruments look like an all-out war.
Similarly, we think the processes for carrying out the clean-air law, the clean-water law, the strip-mine law and others afford somewhat more room for economic evaluations -- and economic advisers -- than Sen. Muskie and his allies like to admit. Congress has not spelled out how every company or community should deal with every specific pollutant. The laws call for a bevy of administrative judgments that determine the precise kinds and amounts of private and public investments -- or costs, if you prefer. Moreover, Congress assigned those judgments not to independent regulatory bodies, but to executive-branch agencies under the president's general authority.
Thus, it isn't out of line for the White House to keep tabs on the cumulative effects of these laws or to see whether they are being carried out in economically sensible and effective ways. And it's politically and constitutionally unrealistic, in our view, to maintain that the president and his advisers should be confined to filing "public comments" -- especially when members of Congress and their staffs do not feels so constrained themselves.
This is not to say that the current regulatory reviews have been as timely and orderly as they should be. Some of the White House questioning has been arbitrary and abrupt. Some has tried to advance alternatives that Congress has foreclosed. And some critical comments have simply been out of line. The most blatantly irregular approach was taken by Barry Bosworth, director of the Council on Wage and Price Stability, who lambasted the Tennessee Valley Authority's immense clean-up agreement in a letter to an industrialist that has been widely circulated by opponents of the settlement. Besides inflaming the whole process, such mistakes feed the environmentalists' fears that the White House is being unduly influenced by industries intent on frustrating the laws.
There ought to be a more orderly, less frenetic way to accommodate legitimate economic analyses. The administration recognizes the need. However, its proposed solution -- a new layer of complicated economic reviews within each agency -- does not sound promising. We suspect that, instead, many of the recent problems may be surmounted by additional experience, growing familiarity with the laws involved, and a greater willingness to make White House comments public in a systematic way. That last step would be especially useful, for it would enable Congress and the public to assess the economists' concerns and decide for themselves whether these reviews are proper and worthwhile.