A bipartisan group of members of Congress is working to cut off all funds for a section of the Office of Management and Budget that carries out the president's program of reducing the burden of federal regulations.
Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are attempting to cut off $5.4 million for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs until the OMB agrees to new disclosure provisions as part of an authorization bill to oversee the rule-making apparatus.
A similar "defunding" effort in the House, led by Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) and Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), gathered steam last week after a damaging Canadian telex about the regulatory office was leaked to Dingell.
Yet this week's developments are only the latest salvos in a 6-year-old war between Congress and the OMB over President Reagan's efforts to reduce the regulatory burden.
The office has been accused of sitting on regulations, weakening them, intimidating bureaucrats not to propose them, undermining their implementation, holding private meetings with industry and operating in secret.
According to Wendy Lee Gramm, director of the regulatory affairs office, the OMB is merely acting as an arm of the president to make sure that the rules he issues are in line with his principles and policies. Said Robert P. Bedell, deputy director, "We do not weaken rules, we strengthen them. And I have never found any agency head to be intimidated by me or anybody else around here."
The fight centers principally on Executive Order 12291, which Reagan issued a month after taking office in 1981, to "reduce the burdens of existing and future regulations, minimize duplication and conflict of regulations and insure well-reasoned regulations."
The order requires the OMB to check that decisions are based on "adequate information," that action not be taken unless the potential benefits outweighed the potential costs, that the least costly alternative must be chosen, and that the condition of the affected industries and the national economy be weighed before a regulation is issued.
Presidents dating to Richard M. Nixon had attempted to use OMB to supervise the government's rule-making process, but with the stroke of a pen Reagan increased the intensity of review by a quantum leap.
The importance of Order 12291 was immediately clear to James C. Miller III, the first head of regulatory affairs, and now director of the OMB.
"If you're the toughest kid on the block, most kids won't pick a fight with you. The executive order establishes things quite clearly," Miller said in a magazine article at the time.
OMB has been exercising its almost unlimited powers to look at virtually every rule for virtually any reason without specific congressional authorization since 1983. It is operating on what it refers to as an "inherent" authorization in several other statutes.
OMB calculated that it reviewed 2,221 rules in 1985, down from 2,803 in 1981. It took the agency an average 43 days to review major proposals, 16 days for nonmajor rules. Agencies and interest groups complain that the OMB sits on some controversial rules indefinitely.
Levin and Durenberger propose to limit OMB's review period to 30 days. "In many situations, issues raised by a regulatory proposal are sufficiently complex that no serious review could be conducted in a 30-day or even a 60-day period," Miller objected.
Last year 71 percent of rules submitted to the OMB for review were approved without change, according to OMB. Although OMB contends that the agencies have the final say on what a rule will contain, about 23 percent of all rules had to be changed last year to "make them consistent with the president's regulatory principles," the OMB said.
"The administration has principally used the system of OMB review created by the executive orders to implement a myopic vision of the regulatory process which places the elimination of cost to industry above all other considerations," Alan B. Morrison, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, wrote in the Harvard Law Review.
Durenberger and Levin also want the OMB to disclose more about its role in recommending rule changes.
Miller is willing to trade a little public disclosure for reauthorization, but not as much as the Senate wants. An elaborate Levin provision for logging and disclosure "intrudes into the heart of the president's ability to consult and direct his subordinates in a confidential and, therefore, candid manner," Miller said.
Many lawmakers want more public scrutiny of meetings with interest groups or industry. They contend that the regulatory office has an open door to industry, and that other people do not get the time of day.
Gramm disagrees. "I have very few meetings with interest groups, period," she said. "I haven't got the time. Very frankly, their positions are usually well represented in the record."
Bedell said that few other groups -- such as union and environmental groups, two of the office's biggest critics -- ever ask to meet with him. "I can remember being asked to meet with a union group only once in my three years here," he said. "It was on the grain-dust rule. They showed us their movie. We explained what our views had been, and that is the only request I can remember."
Bedell also took strong exception to the charges that he had acted improperly in meeting with Canada over regulations to ban asbestos. In the telex leaked to Dingell, Canadian Embassy officials reported to Ottawa that OMB would work to undermine the proposed Environmental Protection Agency ban. One Democratic congressman accused OMB of conspiring with a foreign country to undermine health and safety policy of the United States.
"EPA was invited to the meeting," Bedell said. "They advised they wouldn't attend. EPA knew what our problems were with their proposed rule banning asbestos , they knew in greater detail than the briefings I gave Canada. It is not surprising that the Canadians reported back to their home office on what a good job they're doing with a little editorial license and maybe even hyperbole."
Other critics question whether OMB has the technical expertise to decide such issues as whether workers are harmed by a short-term exposure to the chemical ethylene oxide, the subject of a controversial rule.
"The attack on our credentials is not an appropriate attack," Bedell said. "We are not doing rat studies. We're not running regression analysis. We're doing something our counterparts on the budget side have been doing for 40 years. We ask tough questions. If the answers don't make sense, we pursue them.
"We ask what are the risks involved here. Do they really warrant our attention. Are the costs high in comparison to the payoff? Eighty percent of the rules are cleared without any changes."
The congressional move to cut off $5.4 million of OMB's annual $40 million budget is likely to be limited to an effort to force the agency to sit down with Congress and agree on how, when, and why it will review regulations.
Gramm said of the move, "It is a serious threat, a real concern. We have very few resources as it is, and it would be difficult to carry out our functions, but in any case, the president will continue to review regulations."
"We want to get reauthorized," Gramm said. "We are working with the Senate side, if we can show some movement early on, we think the House side will be okay.