A House appropriations subcommittee refused yesterday to go along with President Reagan's efforts to slash funding for enforcement of some controversial rules governing oil companies and restored $63.7 million in a series of party-line votes.
The action in the interior subcommittee, led by chairman Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), was the first sign of promised Democratic resistance to government-wide budget proposals that critics say are efforts to cripple regulatory agencies without going through the legislative process. There are rumblings that it could happen again over the Office of Civil Rights, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Surface Mining, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other bastions of red tape.
The subcommittee restored $62 million of proposed DOE cuts for the Economic Regulatory Administration. The funds will be used next year in "aggressive action" investigating possible oil and gas company overcharges in the past.
There may have been as much as $11 billion in overcharges, but the Reagan administration sought to cut the compliance investigation budget from $71 million to $12 million. Critics called that an oil company amnesty.
Under Yates' lashing tongue, the subcommittee members also restored $1.7 million of President Reagan's proposed 1981 Department of Energy rescissions for the energy information administration. They specified that part of it be used to save a program that requires the oil industry to report on where it invests its profits.
The system is required under DOE's organization act, but funding for it was zeroed out by the administration, "It is a relatively small budget item but a very significant policy," said a Yates staff member.
Turning to the Office of Surface Mining, the subcommittee agreed to a $1.9 million rescission in 1981 funding after specifying that the cuts were to come in travel and contracting expenses and not from inspection activities. Yates made it clear in hearings Tuesday that he will defend enforcement again when a proposed halving of OSM's 1982 inspection and enforcement budget comes up next month.
"The only basis for this request is that the administration doesn't want to do any inspections," Yates told OSM officials. "I don't think you're carrying out the intent of Congress." In that he echoed widespread warnings from environmental groups that the proposed budget cuts in fact are efforts to cripple the regulatory agencies and will be challenged in court.
Yates was particularly critical of OSM arguments that a reduction in inspection personnel from 296 to 126 would suffice to keep an eye on state enforcement of the federal law, especially after OSM acting director James Bailey said a state's past enforcement record would have no bearing on whether its promises would be believed.
"This is a shocking statement, totally shocking. It doesn't make any sense at all," Yates said.
The subcommittee tried in other ways to be agreeable, however, granting $1.3 billion of Reagan's requested $1.4 billion increase in funds for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in 1981 and all his $3.8 billion request for 1982.