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Should the EPA be an independent agency?

In stepping down as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Burford has wisely opened up the way for a fresh start by the Reagan administration in management of that troubled department. The controversy, acrimony, and suspicion that have surrounded the EPA in recent weeks need never have arisen in the first place had the White House been more sensitive to mounting public and congressional concerns. Thus, by finally putting this matter behind it, and swiftly following through on the President's recent promise to turn all relevant documents over to the legislative committees now investigating possible wrongdoing, the administration has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is a conscientious advocate of environmental control.

It goes without saying that Mr. Reagan will have to find a successor to Mrs. Burford who will bring the impartiality, expertise, and managerial skill so acutely needed at the EPA at this time.

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While the many issues raised by the EPA scandal are being sorted out, however , the administration and Congress have an opportune occasion to examine an even larger question, one that goes beyond the EPA - the management and independence of all federal regulatory bodies.

As noted by Ronald Brownstein in an article on today's Opinion and Commentary page, Congress and a succession of administrations over the past decade have eroded the independence not only of ''executive branch'' regulatory agencies such as the EPA, but of even such legislatively mandated ''independent'' agencies as the Federal Trade Commission, whose members have fixed terms and are supposed to be insulated from political pressures.

In the Reagan administration, Mr. Brown-stein points out, the White House has to a large extent centralized power over executive-branch agencies. That means, for example, that major EPA decisions must be reviewed and approved by the Office of Management and Budget.

But the White House is not alone in imposing a high degree of control over federal agencies. Congress has mandated that independent agencies must submit their budget requests through the OMB. At the same time, by granting itself a legislative veto, Congress can now overrule decisions of regulatory agencies - as lawmakers did, for example, last year when they overturned a controversial FTC rule requiring car dealers to provide used-car stickers identifying possible defects.

Granted, there is something to be said for having agency budgets go through the overall OMB budget process. But at the same time the public has a legitimate interest in ensuring that the various federal agencies carry out their primary missions. In the case of the independent agencies - where public health and safety concerns are often involved - that is particularly important.

In this connection, is there not something to be said for the proposal of Senators Moynihan and Mitchell that the EPA be made an independent agency? Here, after all, is an agency charged with ensuring that laws pertaining to the purity of the nation's air and water are vigorously and impartially enforced. The use of highly toxic chemicals by industry - many of them dangerous to life - is so commonplace today that it would seem to warrant giving the EPA as much independence from political pressures as possible. One result would be to protect the agency from the swings of the political pendulum - with ''liberal'' administrations automatically looking with disfavor on big industry and chemical usage and ''conservative'' administrations viewing environmental concerns as merely ''alarmist.''

What is needed at the EPA is steady and dispassionate professionalism. Congress ought to consider enacting the Moynihan-Mitchell measure.

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