Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) waved a big budget stick at the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday, threatening "to do anything . . . to gut your budget" if the agency fails to untangle its bureaucratic maze.

Garn, chairman of the independent agencies subcommittee that governs EPA funding, insisted at a budget hearing that he was both serious and speaking in friendship. He lauded EPA's environmental standards as "sound and justified," but added, "red tape and the cynical use of the laws do nothing for the quality of the environment."

"I don't know of a worse bureaucracy than EPA," he thundered at acting EPA administrator Walter C. Barber Jr. "If EPA doesn't clean up its act, this chairman will do anything he can to gut your budget. And that's a threat," Garn said.

Barber, unruffled, did not reply directly but presented the tally of budget cuts already planned at the agency.These include $53 million from ending planning grants on water research for the states; $7.4 million in the clean air program, and another $12.1 million in costs of implementation of regulations, he said. The budget, he continued, funds "only the programs that meet our most critical national environment goals."

In an interview after the hearing, Barber said Garn's rhetoric did not worry him. "He went out of his way to say he's not questioning our goals, our standards or our numbers, but just saying the mechanics can be improved," Barber said. "Most of the issues he referred to were before my time."

Current procedures, Garn complained, "are ridiculous and only add more costs to industry and government, which means more costs to consumers and taxpayers." Garn said he worried that an anti-environmental backlash might develop if EPA continued to allow "bureaucratic entanglements" to hamper its achievements. "I don't want to see that happen," he said.

Garn said that as mayor of Salt Lake City in 1973 he had learned from a newspaper article that EPA had rejected the city's proposal to control traffic for air quality purposes. The article, an aide said, outlined EPA's substitute plan for parking restrictions and street closings, a proposal Garn later called "an extermination plan for Salt Lake City."

"That is a less than desirable way to keep track of EPA programs," Barber agreed afterward.

Garn, apparently mollified, allowed that EPA did not deserve all the blame for the confusion. "Congress seems to find it impossible to be specific when writing the laws," he said.