Some powerful members of Congress and the Education Department are feuding over an obscure law known as GEPA, but the dispute has overtones of a prickly constitutional clash on a much larger issue: the legislative veto.
Congress is threatening to veto some new education regulations because they don't pay homage to the General Education Provisions Act, a law setting out administrative rules and safeguards that educational institutions must follow on issues ranging from protection of student records to audits of federal aid.
The Reagan administration contends that the law doesn't apply to its new rules because Congress didn't specify that it did when it passed last year's budget reconciliation bill. And on top of that, the executive branch takes the position that Congress can't veto the rules because its veto authority is in GEPA, the law that doesn't apply.
The dispute arose last week when the department published rules for the so-called Chapter 1 program of educational aid for disadvantaged children and its new program of block grants to the states, known as Chapter 2. In both cases, the department said that GEPA didn't apply.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, warned Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell in mid-July that no blanket exemption of GEPA was intended in last year's reconciliation bill. Congress wanted to simplify the administration and monitoring of federal education programs, he said, "but did not intend to jettison the salutary protections" of provisions such as the one setting out the rights of pupils and parents.
Publishing regulations without GEPA, Hatch said, would lead to attempts by Congress to pass a veto resolution. "It is my feeling," he added, "that such a resolution will succeed."
"While I sympathize with the desire to prune the catalog of federal regulations . . . , I still feel that the wholesale scrapping of GEPA is not wise and was not intended by the Congress and I cannot support such a course of action."
A few days after the new regulations were issued last week, Rep. Carl D. Perkins (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, started the veto procedure. He accused the department of ignoring the 45 days that GEPA gives Congress to review all regulations by making them effective on Aug. 12.
The feud is not a new one. Congress vetoed four sets of education regulations during the Carter administration. And last month, the Housing and Urban Development Department ignored a House committee resolution that tried to block a rent increase for low-income tenants for a month.
The legislative veto issue is now before the Supreme Court in an immigration case. The executive branch contends that Congress can make law only by passing a bill the president can veto, not by vetoing regulations.
The GEPA episode has produced puzzlement in some quarters. Linda Brown, an attorney for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which backs GEPA's applicability, said yesterday, "I wouldn't think the law is significant enough to do this. Why have a big tangle with Congress over this?"
Some congressional aides said they had heard that the Office of Management and Budget was trying to kill GEPA because it allows Congress to veto regulations. An administration spokesman said, however, that the key issue was simplification of rules, not the veto battle.