THE SQUABBLE going on inside the administration about the future of National Airport presents the whole deregulation debate in miniature. Thus, the outcome of this argument over what is primarily a local issue may reveal just how far the administration is prepared to push its war against regulation in of the face of environmental and community concerns.
One group of officials wants to continue to regulate closely airline acces to National in order to reduce noise, ease congestion and shift air traffic to Dulles. Another group of officials wants to deregulate National almost completely and let the "market" and consumer reaction ti it handle those problems.
The second idea, known in its most extreme form as the "open skies" plan, would establish the hours of operation at National (say, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and let the airlines run as many planes in and out each day as they safely could. Eventually, it is argued, the noise over the river would be less annoying because the airlines would shift to newer, quieter planes that carry more passengers. As for congestion in the terminal and around the airport, either pasengers would get fed up with it and transfer their business elswhere, or somebody, most likely the government, would build new facilities to handle the crowds.
That is an almost perfect version of the marketplace theory of regulation.It holds that government should rarely intervene in the way business is conducted because intervention is stifling and because public reaction will smooth of the worst business practices. The trouble with the theory, of course, is that there is little room in it for consideration of those factors that make a community a pleasant place in which to live.
The proper role of government regulation is to provide people and communities with the protections they need but cannot provide themselves. That's the justification for stop signs, zoning laws, food and drug purity standards, clean air and water requirements and, among other things, airport controls. It would be deregulation run riot for the Reagan administration to conclude that the air transportation system of this community and the quality of life along the river be left to the airlines' perception of how best to serve their customers, especially when most of those customers neither know nor worry about the discomfort their trips bring to tens of thousands of other citizens.
Such a decision -- and the Office of Management and Budget is pushing hard to minimize the restrictions on airline use of National -- would be a signal that this administration regards deregulation as so great and absolute a good that almost nothing will be allowed to stand in its way.