The Reagan administration's efforts to cut back programs or dismantle regulations dear to the hearts of consumer advocates, poverty workers, civil rights organizations and labor unions have provoked growing outrage but comparatively little in the way of legal challenges, according to many of the public interest lawyers who traditionally represent these groups.
These lawyers have been slow to march into federal courts in part, they say, because so many of the administration's initiatives are not yet final, and in part because the Republicans have been able to achieve many of their goals through budgetary rather than regulatory moves, leaving lawyers fewer openings.
Some lawyers also worry that rushing in early with sweeping challenges could produce a bad court ruling that would hamper their work in the future.
Another complication is that, while these groups are watching what one lawyer called an "across-the-board attack" on the regulations they sought over the past decade, the apparatus being used is new and unfamiliar.
Under President Reagan's executive order on regulatory review, the Office of Management and Budget has a key role in overseeing agencies' production of new rules and review of old ones. Theoretically, legal challenges to OMB's new power could be mounted, but practically they would be both expensive and risky, according to some public interest lawyers.
But, they predict, next summer, when the dust of Reagan's first 18 months in office has settled and many of the deregulatory initiatives have taken final form, there will be a stampede into federal courtrooms.
"A lot of these issues aren't ripe," said Tom Smith of the Community Nutrition Institute. "The substantive changes the administration is contemplating making in the next six months may result in a whole new wave of legal activity. But not yet."
"In the area of health, education and civil rights, the administration has correctly recognized that the big payoff will be in changes to legislation. They have very deftly tied up the changes in funding bills," said Dan Yohalem, of the Children's Defense Fund. "Significant changes in social programs are being wrought by single up-or-down votes on Reaganomics . . . ."
The changes in the regulations that govern these programs, he said, are coming more slowly as agencies follow the painstaking dictates of the Administrative Procedures Act, soliciting and digesting public comments on proposed changes. "Because this process has moved so slowly, we have not had the opportunity to see their regulatory changes, with a few exceptions," he added.
Among the exceptions are changes in the eligibility rules promulgated by the Health and Human Services Department for recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children; a Philadelphia antipoverty group challenged these rules and won a temporary stay from a District Court judge. Earlier this month, Yohalem's group challenged HHS's rules permitting states to cut back the number of medically needy children eligible for certain health programs; that challenge in pending in District Court here.
But other public interest groups have been thwarted in their attempts, at least for now. Procedural challenges to the administration's decision to delay rules requiring energy efficiency standards for major appliances and informational inserts with 10 widely used drugs seem likely to become moot when the administration decides to stop delaying and do away with the rules entirely. A union challenge to the Labor Department's delay of noise-on-the-job rules met a similar fate.
One, possibly more fruitful avenue is being tried by civil rights groups: calling on courts to uphold their earlier decrees. Some groups have gone to court in California seeking a ruling that the terms of a decade-old consent decree on school discrimination are being violated by the Reagan administration.
The only groups apparently stampeding to court are environmentalists, who have filed more than a dozen challenges of the actions--or inaction--of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.
Tom Galloway, a lawyer specializing in strip-mining cases, has brought two legal challenges to the administration's relaxation ot strip-mining rules, including one being filed today. " Interior Department Secretary James G. Watt tends to do extreme things and he does them fast and some of them simply conflict with the statutes," Galloway said.
On the EPA front, groups like the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have challenged changes in air pollution rules and delays in regulations on wastewater treatment and the storage of hazardous wastes.
These cases, like those waiting in the wings, represent a new approach for public interest lawyers: instead of saying government agencies haven't gone far enough, as they did in earlier administrations, they are increasingly saying the agencies are going in the wrong direction. Those cases, some attorneys say, are considerably more difficult to make.
"The courts are extremely reluctant to say the agency has to do something if the agency has any conceivable grounds for not wanting to do something," agreed Alan Morrison of Public Citizen Litigation Group, consumer activist Ralph Nader's legal arm. "Those kind of cases," agreed Barry Goldstein of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, "are hard to bring and win."