New ideas on reining in big government

Most Americans did not need a panel of experts to tell them that the federal governmetn has grown too big and powerful, unmanageable, and unresponsive to public needs. Political researchers for years have cautioned against the further expansion of federal activities at the expense of state and local governments. And for years, federal authority has continued to make inroads into areas of public policymaking traditionally thought to be the preserve of local and state officials.

But the latest group created by Congress to study the problem -- the Advisory Commission on intergovernmental relations -- has come up with new and disturbing evidence as to the extent of the federal take-over as well as some penetrating insights into why the traditional sharing of powers and responsibilities between Washington and state and local governments has broken down. What's more, the commission is not content to stop with the usual calls for a more effective federal-state "partnership" but makes some bold -- and potentially controversial -- recommendations for countering the burgeoning of federal power.

Among the major findings of the advisory commission is that Congress itself must shoulder much of the blame for the federal government's haphazard growth and intrusion into virtually every aspect of american life. The commission, faulting congress for spending too much time on such narrow local issues as potholes and rat control, for instance, warns that the emergence of the national government as them dominant force in determining domestic policies "has left no government jurisdiction, and very few citizens, untouched."

The rapid expansion of federal activities since 1960 was found to have created considerable tension in and out of government and to have fed the sense of public helplessness and yearning for stronger political leadership many Americans have expressed in opinion polls. It is not so much the size of the federal bureaucracy that concerns the commission as the confusion, inefficiency and waste, and lack of accountability stemming from the federal government's reliance on state and local bodies to carry out its policies. In fact, the actual size of the federal civilian bureaucracy has not grown significantly in the past 20 years. But the number of federal regulations imposed on state and local governments have. Insignificant in number in 1960, there are now some 1, 260 such mandates, 223 of them direct orders and 1,036 conditions for receiving federal aid.

Another cause for concern in the mushrooming of federal assistance programs over the past two decades from 132 to some 500 today. The transfer of funds to state and local governments has grown from $7 billion in 1960 to a staggering $ 88 billion, or 23 percent of all state and local spending. One of the key recommendations is that a number of those programs be phased out or consolidated. The commission would simplify the grant-in-aid system, eliminating 420 small categorical grants, 10 percent of all federal grants, and axe small programs with high administration costs. It would also terminate federal aid to education as part of a broader effort to end all programs in which the federal input is less than 10 percent of the total.

To help clarify which level of government has responsibility for which function -- and thereby improve accountability -- the commission proposes a trade-off by which certain functions would be entirely national, such as welfare and health insurance programs, while others would be assumed totally by the states, such as natural resources, education, libraries, and fire protection. Previous study panels, dating back to the Eisenhower administration in 1953, have urged a division of powers, but the difference this time is that the advisory commission spells out how the specific functions should be allocated.

We do not necessarily support all of the commission's recommendations. In fact, some -- such as the proposed shifting of environmental responsibilities to the states -- raise questions that need to be carefully explored. What must be kept in mind is that the growth of the federal sphere in many instances came about because the states failed to exert responsibility and make needed reforms, as in ensuring civil rights and protecting the environment. Certainly a stron g federal government is needed in many areas of public interest. The advisory commission itself notes such benefits of federal action as job creation, a cleaner environment, safer products, and improved working conditions.

The subject is vast and needs thougtful consideration as americans wrestle with problems of governance. Significantly, it is not only Congress that has spotlighted the need to reassess the federal system. The nation's governors have similarly taken up the cry for greater federal-state cooperation and the National League of Cities will focus on federalism at its annual meeting this year.

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, this root issue will have to be faced up to. One commission recommendation is that a national conference be held to discuss the problem. That seems a good way to start building the kind of national consensus which will be required to bring about a better balance between federal and state jurisdictions.

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