President Reagan is considering an executive order to reverse a longstanding tradition and direct federal agencies to refrain from seeking "uniform, national standards" on most new programs.
A draft of the proposed executive order on federalism calls for the agencies to defer to state standards "whenever possible" and for the agencies to avoid "to the maximum extent possible" setting new national requirements on the many programs that receive federal funds.
Reagan, who has built much of his career arguing that the federal government makes too many demands of state and local government, has promised to sign an order on the subject before he leaves office. An administration official said last night that he expects the order to be signed within 30 days.
If the president accepts the draft, the order is certain to be controversial with civil rights and environmental groups, which have said that national standards have been essential in the fight against racial injustice, pollution and other regional disparities.
The administration official, speaking on condition he not be identified, said, however, that the administration would not seek to turn over to the states the protection of constitutional rights, such as civil rights.
"There is no hidden agenda here," the official said. "On matters of constitutional guarantees, the federal government will insist on enforcing them to the full extent of the law."
The proposed order would not affect any existing program or regulations, but David Plocher, a spokesman at OMB Watch, which monitors the policymaking role of the Office of Management and Budget, said it could effectively "dismantle" civil rights and environmental programs by "creating an institutional bias against federal action."
Whether the order will have any lasting impact depends on several factors. One key question is whether agency executives will abide by it or will argue that their programs demand national standards, Plocher said.
Congress also could override the White House's objection to national standards. Any succeeding president could wipe out the order by issuing another one.
The draft order tells the agencies that they must bow to the states whenever possible and that they should consult with state governments "to the extent practicable" before implementing many actions.
"In the absence of clear constitutional or statutory authority, the presumption of sovereignty should rest with the individual states," it says. "Uncertainties regarding the legitimate authority of the national government should be resolved against regulation at the national level."
" . . . The national government should grant the states the maximum administrative discretion possible. Intrusive federal oversight of state administration is neither necessary nor desirable."
The agencies are directed to encourage states to develop their own standards and not to issue any proposals "that would interfere with functions essential to the state's separate and independent existence . . . . "
The draft was proposed by a Domestic Policy Council working group headed by Assistant Attorney General Charles J. Cooper. Last year the group issued a report charging that the federal government has usurped the powers of the states in many areas.