Seeking to redeem one of President Carter's favorite promises, the White House is taking steps to reduce the amount of paperwork that federal agencies can require from the public -- and the agencies are howling.
Under an executive order that Carter signed late last year, the Office of Management and Budget is creating a new federal budget. This one is not expressed in dollars, but in "burden hours" -- how many hours of citizen time an agency can take up each year with its forms.
Under this Information Collection Budget, each agency gets so many hours. They all want more; most say they can't do their jobs if limited that way.
Promised anonymity, one official pronounced the ICB "absolutely crazy."
Another, on hearing from a reporter that the subject of his call was the ICB, exclaimed, "Oh, what a disaster!"
Yet another scorned the ICB as a counterproductive "boondoggle," claiming that in reducing paperwork outside the government, it would be piling up additional mountains of it inside the government.
One complaint was pervasive. Stripped of its colorful denunciatory prose, the complaint is that in the name of an unassailable objective, the ICB is transferring immense regulatory powers into preisdential hands from agencies that were entrusted with them by Congress and that, unlike OMB, are subject to quasijudicial operating procedures. Once consolidated in the White House, the complaint runs, these powers easily can be abused, if not by this administration, then by another.
But in a 1-1/2-hour interview at the OMB, two top executives, Wayne G. Granquist, associate director for management and regulatory policy, and Louis Kincannon, deputy assistant director, rejected the charges.
Addressing the central complaint, for example, Granquist denied that the OMB was improperly gathering in regulatory powers and developing the potential to abuse them. "We're simply aggregating them in a different way," he said.
The system goes into effect Oct. 1, the first day of the 1981 fiscal year, for the 13 Cabinet departments and the 14 so-called independent executive agencies.
Whether burden-hours can be accurately measured is another key point in dispute. It's also one on which it's easy to stumble, as Ronald Reagan found out when he asserted that General Motors employs 23,000 persons just to do federal paperwork. The true number is closer to 5,000 -- and many work only on GM's tax returns.
The OMB, after numerous meetings with officials in the departments and agencies, decided to implement, the president's executive order with a step-by-step percolator process similar to that for the preparation of fiscal budgets.
Essentially, requests for burden-hours for fiscal 1981 were prepared by individual administrative subdivisions, such as the hazardous wastes unit of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the Labor Department, and the Federal Aviation Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the Department of Transportation.
After reviewing and culling the requests, each agency and department sent a consolidated ICB submission to the OMB. Starting this week, OMB will hold closed meetings with the departments and agencies. Then, in early September, the OMB will tell each how many burden-hours it can have -- to distribute among its subdivisions as it chooses. Cutbacks can be appealed to OMB Director James T. McIntyre Jr. and theoretically, if he holds fast, to the president.
This may be merely an aggregation of the OMB's existing powers, as claimed by Granquist, but it also is much different from the system that had been in effect for four decades under the Federal Reports Act of 1941.
Under the old system each department or agency had to submit its forms, along with their estimated burden-hours, for clearance by the OMB. There was no over-all control, no overview of the burdens being imposed on the public.
The OBM cannot tell you how many individual forms there are, although it does know that there are 3,947 categories, some for a single form, others for multiple forms. The categories elicit an estimated 676.2 million annual responses consuming 200 million hours.
Now, with the ICB, the OMB has a handle on the process, one that it wanted long before the Carter administration to curb the paperwork generated by the submission of about 2,000 new forms every year.
Granquist likes the handle mainly because it lifts the form-clearance process off the back of the OMB and puts it onto the heads of the departments and agencies, who must now decide for themselves how to allocate cutbacks. He also says that the potential for abuse of power by the OMB was greater under the old system. In addition, Kincannon said that the ICB is "defensive" against "Ignorant, arbitrary" cutback proposals.
By contrast, the critical officials interviewed by The Washington Post made these charges:
By cutting an agency's consolidated ICB request without openly usurping its regulatory powers, the OMB can force it to abandon regulations intended to protect the public health and safety, to inhibit it from proposing new ones, or to write unduly loose ones. The White House "now can basically stop a regulatory activity," one official charged.
The ICB gives regulated industries a new incentive to exaggerate the burden-hours of regulation and to press their claims at the OMB, which then will get into paperwork-generating disputes with the affected agencies. (Granquist countered by saying that if businesses tend to overstate the burden-hours and costs, agencies tend to understate them. At the same time, he said, the OMB's presumption of accuracy traditionally is with the agency.)
Fifteen months in advance of the start of the 1982 fiscal year, agencies are being compelled to start calculating burden-hours without having the faintest idea what drug, aircraft, automobile, industrial dumping, or workplace chemical may suddenly be discovered to be a hazard.
"There's no way we can make any sensible assessment of the amount of time it will take people to answer our requests for information when we don't know what those requests will be," one safety official said. "It's absolutely crazy."
Disagreeing, Granquist said that in any health or safety emergency, OMB will have the same incentive to accommodate unforeseen circumstances that it's always had.