Concern is growing on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about the Office of Management and Budget's efforts to limit the collection of racial and ethnic data about Americans who benefit from government programs.
Last week, five Republican and seven Democratic senators wrote President Reagan, urging him to reverse the curbs. The senators said that although the OMB has cited reasons for curtailing the data collection that "range from the Paperwork Reduction Act to 'the administration's policy regarding quotas,' we believe OMB has misread some laws while failing to read others."
"The severe curtailment of information-gathering activities by . . . federal agencies will short-circuit the ability of this government to identify existing problems, anticipate future ones and take appropriate action to address them," said the letter, forwarded to the White House by Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.).
So far, the Housing and Urban Development Department and the Veterans Administration have borne the brunt of prohibitions against gathering the information, which the two agencies use to remedy housing discrimination and administer civil rights programs.
But most government agencies administer programs that have civil rights requirements and could be the budget office's next targets.
Among the HUD forms rejected by the OMB are several designed to monitor the participation of minority-owned businesses in the agency's projects. A similar form proposed by the Transportation Department is being studied by the OMB.
A Commerce Department official, who asked not to be named, said if the agencies are barred from collecting racial and ethnic information about companies that win federal contracts, it will be hard for Commerce to run programs designed to give minority-owned businesses a share of federal business.
Other regulations and forms for collecting data on the race, ethnic background and sex of applicants have been disapproved entirely or in part, including VA and HUD applications for home mortgage insurance guaranties.
"This is no casual effort by OMB, it's a concerted action," said a HUD official who asked not to be named. "The surest way to stop [civil rights law] enforcement is to remove information about who is in the programs."
OMB spokesman Edwin L. Dale Jr. disagreed. "We have a responsibility under the Paperwork Reduction Act to reduce the burden to the public in filling out forms, and each case is being handled on its own merits."
He said the senators' letter had not arrived at the OMB, and so he could not comment on it.
OMB officials frequently have cited the Paperwork Reduction Act as their reason for disapproving the data collection. In other instances, they have cited the Reagan administration's opposition to racial quotas; in others, they have said the information is either unnecessary or available from other sources.
But several HUD and VA officials said the information they are seeking is not available elsewhere.
Dale said the OMB "tentatively" has disapproved the Transportation Department's proposal to gather racial and ethnic information for quarterly reports on DOT contractors. "Our problem is that the data being used are compiled and assessed by [DOT] only annually. We're asking why they need a quarterly report," Dale said.
The Transportation Department had submitted the quarterly report plan to the OMB last August and received approval for it through the end of March, when it was resubmitted, a DOT spokesman said.
In denying HUD's request to gather information about minority-owned companies, the OMB said the proposed action would have run counter to an executive order specifying that HUD grant recipients "be encouraged, not pressured or compelled, to utilize minority business," the OMB said. "In addition, the breakdown of racial and ethnic data by programs is not necessary to ensure that [minority-owned businesses] are participating in HUD programs."
Another HUD proposal to collect racial and ethnic "contract and subcontract data" and to require "minority business enterprise reporting" from local governments that receive Community Development Block Grants was rejected by the budget office, in part because such information-gathering is not authorized by OMB Circular A-102. Dale said that the circular specifies the types of reports that can be required of government grant recipients, and that the proposed report was not included.
After the OMB rejected several of its requests, a HUD official said, the department did not bother to seek its approval of a form used to collect information about the race, sex and ethnic backgrounds of employes of contractors hired with Community Development Block Grants. The form's use had been approved through the end of 1984, but "when HUD got word of the OMB campaign," the department did not push for an extension, the official said.
Although the OMB ordered that ethnic, racial and sex questions be deleted from the VA home mortgage loan guaranty form in February, and followed suit with HUD in April, neither agency has appealed the decision. Spokesmen for both departments say they are preparing appeals, however.
HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. did write OMB Director David A. Stockman "on the subject generally of racial data collection from participants in HUD programs," said HUD general counsel John J. Knapp. Stockman responded that Pierce "raised points which merit serious consideration" and asked for discussions between the chief attorneys for both agencies, Knapp said.
After the OMB disapproved a form designed to gather information to reveal patterns of discrimination within public housing authorities, HUD asked the Justice Department for an opinion on the dispute. Justice spokesman John Wilson said the department told HUD that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act "does not forbid collection of data, but it does not compel collection." Thus the decision, he said, "is OMB's call."