It is time for Congress to pass the regulatory reform bill. It is a sound and valuable proposal, assigned top priority by Presidents Carter and Reagan, with broad support from all sides in the Congress. It is already sufficiently advanced - unanimously approved by the Senate and by the House Judiciary Committee - that it could pass without crowding the appropriations and employment bills that should be the chief preoccupation of the lame-duck session.
The bill is designed to make individual regulatory programs more orderly, open, and commonsensical - not to gut useful health, safety, and environmental legislation. Its passage can help calm the vexatious and distracting national debate about whether regulation is good or bad, on terms that all sides, including the business community, should accept.
It is one administration priority in which the House leadership and the President can readily concur.
The bill that will have the blessing of the House leadership, if one reaches the floor, is the product of four months of negotiations between representatives of the business community, the Speaker's staff, and relevant House and Senate committee staffs. In substance, it differs little from the original regulatory reform proposal that President Carter sent to the Congress in March 1979.
The heart of the bill is a straightforward requirement that agencies analyze the costs and benefits of ''major'' new proposed rules, and the comparative cost-effectiveness of the realistic alternatives to them. The bill also requires a reappraisal of major existing rules to see if they should be retained, changed , or dropped.
The 96th and 97th Congress have added some features to the original proposal, sponsored mainly by prominent Democrats. Amendments by Senators Kennedy, Leahy, and Laxalt, and by Representatives Daniel-son and McClory promote disclosure of agency decision processes, including their written communications with the White House. Senator Bumpers has directed federal courts to take a ''hard look'' at agency decisions and not automatically defer to presumed agency ''expertise'' - something that good federal judges already do anyway. Senators Levin and Boren have contributed a procedure for congressional review of major agency rules, that preserves the President's constitutional authority to veto any legislative veto of any agency decision.
As President Carter said when he submitted it - and as the recent elections clearly confirm - the American people want ''responsible regulations to provide equal opportunity for employment, a clean environment, safe drugs and food, a healthy workplace, and a competitive marketplace.'' But we also need, as Carter added, a device to enable us to stop and say: ''Does each of these rules make sense? Does it do the job? How much does it cost, and is there a cheaper way to achieve goals just as effectively?''
I know that these concepts trouble some whom I greatly respect in the public interest and labor communities. As they observe, excessive new red tape could hamper the government's ability to respond to serious social problems. But this bill will require minimal new formality and procedural rigor.
Moreover, assuring reasoned agency deci-sionmaking and judicial scrutiny can help environmental and consumer advocates in court as much as industry lawyers. Earlier this year, for example, a federal court ordered administration deregulators to reinstate the Department of Transportation's auto passive restraint rule. The court held that DOT had failed to prove that scuttling the rule would cut new car prices more than it would increase medical, insurance, and social service costs.
In sum, the regulatory reform bill deserves the broad-based support it enjoys. But two caveats should be noted. First, the House should seek an understanding with the Senate that will preclude a lengthy conference and will assure a final product that, like the House bill, will not dilute substantive health and safety standards in existing laws. In practice, this may mean that the Senate will simply have to accept the House bill intact.
Second, the old bugaboo of a constitutionally defective government-wide legislative veto rider, with no presidential veto provision, could be added to the bill on the House floor. To be sure, courts have recently struck down legislative vetoes that do not preserve the President's veto power, and there are good indications that the Supreme Court would invalidate such a rider, if it were adopted. Still, it would be very risky and unwise policy to pass a regulatory reform bill that includes an unconstitutional legislative veto provision. The scarce time and resources of the lame-duck session should not be squandered on controversial proposals of questionable merit, that were at preliminary stages of the legislative process before the recess.
Regulatory reform has none of those deficiencies. Passing it now would be a big step in the direction of good government.