Washington — Conventional Washington wisdom says that presidents come and presidents go, but the federal bureaucracy lives on, mostly unchanged. This time, conventional wisdom may be wrong.
This President's first 100 days could be the beginning of "Reagan revolution." With a gracious manner and perfectly timed humor, he has set about turning an entire country around.
For decades the federal government has been building more programs, making more regulations, and spending more money. At his inaugural, President Reagan proclaimed big government to be public enemy No. 1. It must be shrunk, he said.And from that day he has been making good on that promise.
"The time for business as usual has passed," the President told a group of mayors in March. "This federal Goliath, unleashed and uncontrolled, brought us to the economic brink that is now confronting this nation."
Mr. Reagan has proceeded with extraordinary single-mindedness to shrink the giant.Only weeks after he took office, he speeded to Capitol Hill a new economic plan that would dramatically cut back the growth of federal spending and taxing. He declared war on government regulations and announced plans to turn over more authority to the states.
The new President charted a straight pathway, and so far he has not allowed his administration to wander very far into side roads.
Even the attempted assassination, which partially sidelined the President for four of his first 14 weeks, seems to be working in behalf of his program. His bravery after the wounding March 30 boosted his personal popularity and produced a Congress that is pressured to approve most, if not all, of his program.
In only a few months, the administration has devised a plan that would radically shift the direction of US society:
Spending.For more than a generation the federal government has steadily expanded its outreach to the nation's needy. It helped feed them (through food stamps), gave them jobs (through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), and even pay for their lawyers to defend their rights (through the Legal Services Corporation).
The Reagan program would halt the growth in this outreach. Tighter rules would take an estimated 1 million recipients off food stamp rolls. CETA's 300, 000 workers would be out of jobs, and legal services for the poor would have no guaranteed funding.
Regulation. While he must await Congress on his spending plans, President Reagan can take direct action to cut federal red tape, and he has wasted no time in doing so. During his first week he announced a task force to examine government regulations, and he has appointed a number of antiregulators to top posts.
Already his administration has relaxed rules that would have required carmakers to install automatic seat belts or air bags.It is reassessing cotton dust standards to see if the price of protecting textile workers is too high for the industry to pay. And it has moved to review rules requiring strip-mining companies to restore the lands they disrupt.
Environment. The President's appointment of James G. Watt as secretary of the Interior symbolizes the antiregulation mood. As head of a legal foundation in Colorado, Mr. Watt specialized in fighting federal rules that blocked developers from exploiting natural resources.
Since his arrival, Watt has set off alarm signals in the environmentalist movement. He has opened up controversial sites off the shore of California for possible oil drilling and announced a cutback in the purchase of park lands that had already been designated by Congress.
"It's hard to see any redeeming features from the first 100 days," says Brock Evans, associate director of the Sierra Club. He charges that Secretary Watt has "embarked on a crash program of opening up sensitive and fragile land to oil and gas exploration."
Civil rights. A vast array of rules to enforce fair employment and education would seem an ideal target for the new administration. There has been little movement in this area, however.
During a press conference in January the President criticized affirmative action plans that become "quota systems." But in the only action so far in this area, his administration agreed to go along with a plan worked out by President Carter to bring more members of minorities into white-collar federal jobs.
"Nothing much has happened from a civil rights point of view," says Jack Greenberg, director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. He adds that the Reagan budget is a "disaster for poor people and black people."
Women. Presidents Ford and Carter appointed more women than had ever been named to top federal jobs. The Reagan administration has fallen far behind. "We're going backwards," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
"I haven't heard anything positive for women's rights," Mrs. Smeal says of the first 100 days of the new presidency.
"Women are getting lost in the shuffle, and we believe they are being purposely excluded," says Iris Mitgang, who chairs the National Women's Political Action Committee. Proposed budget cuts in enforcement of equal employment laws mean "there will be an erosion of those laws on the books," she adds.
New federalism. In his effort to cut down the size of the federal government , President Reagan has proposed turning over more responsibility to the states and localities. His plan calls for merging more than 80 health, education, and welfare programs into six "block grants."
The idea is that states or local governments will have more flexibility to run these services.
Local officials have greeted the plan with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Ruben Valdez, executive director of the Colorado Department of Social Services, has welcomed it, even though the total federal dollars will be 25 percent less than expected. "If it happens the way it's proposed, then I don't have any doubt that we could do a better job locally," he says.
Colorado business is booming, adds Mr. Valdez, who has already managed to reduce his welfare roles by about 7,000 since 1975.
In Maryland, however, business is not booming. The state has been hit by major layoffs in the past year. Bill B. Benton, deputy secretary of human resources for Maryland, says of the Reagan plan: "What is being shifted is the onus for cutting programs."
Mr. Benton also is skeptical of the plan to cut federal strings on programs. "Behind one person's strings is another person's protection," he says.
Meanwhile, mayors have expressed concern that governors and state legislatures will not cut a big enough piece of the block grants for big cities.
Despite concerns about block grants, the tone is clearly in tune with the Reagan promise to make government smaller. It has long been a Republican theme, but this President seems close to making it a reality.