Tuning the New Federalism

When Republicans join Democrats in expressing concern about federal aid programs -- as occurred the past several days at the National Governors' Association meeting at Atlantic City -- then it is time for Americans to take a closer look at the long-range implications of the New Federalism proposed by the Reagan administration, as well as the degree to which an orderly transfer of power from federal auspices to the states is underway in the United States.

Under his decentralization plan, Mr. Reagan would sharply alter existing federal and state relations by moving from categorical grants (with congressional strings attached to the monies pegged for various social programs) to block grants, thus allowing greater responsibility and decisionmaking at the state level. But to what extent the block grant programs now emerging out of Congress will do that is one of the larger questions troubling the governors.

The administration originally proposed that some 85 or so federal aid programs be consolidated into six block grants, with management to be turned over to the states. But Congress, wary about states circumventing the purposes for which the monies were to be given, compromised and left some federal controls attached to the grants, while at the same time cutting back dollar levels far more than the governors had expected. The result? Fewer dollars for the governors and states to work with, although with somewhat greater latitude over spending decisions at the state level but -- and this is a key complaint by many governors -- not all that much more latitude in certain specified programs.

For that reason it is hardly surprising to hear one governor -- in this case, a Republican, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee -- saying that "we feel, and we believe the American people would feel, that from now on we can't continue to accept more responsibilities without more tax resources or more flexibility, or with the national government accepting some responsibilities itself." Surely the Reagan administration, with its demonstrated sensitivity to the views of political leaders, will not ignore such concerns as these as it goes forward with plans to shift even more federal programs to the states during the months and years ahead. There is a strong case to be made for a "pause" in the New Federalism to allow the governors time to absorb the block grants and shifts in responsibility now underway before burdening states with further transfers. The governors are particularly anxious about administration talk of shifting the costly medicaid program to the states.

Block grants, whether one agrees with or opposes the concept, are certainly a political reality for now. For that reason the governors are on target in seeking to make the present system work as smoothly as possible. For the American public that should mean insisting -- As Congress has wisely done -- that the grant monies are used for the general purposes for which they are appropriated. The basic responsibility over spending taxpayer dollars, after all, should not be totally separated from those elected officials raising the dollars in the first place.

One can only surmise that much of Mr. Reagan's enthusiasm for block grants stems from his experience in California, a state with a tradition of a capable and a largely scandal- free state work force. But what about states with perhaps less innovative legislatures or more questionable histories of malfeasance by public officials? Will those states retain existing social programs for which the federal tax dollars are earmarked? The New Federalism may in fact aim to scuttle a number of controversial social welfare programs by shifting them to the states, since some financially hard-pressed states may not be able to fund such programs.

Mr. Reagan's New Federalism has much to be said for it in the sense of making government more responsive to local needs while cutting back the size and awesome powers of the federal government. What is increasingly clear, however, is that a great deal of hard thought must be given to ensuring that, whatever shifts of responsibility take place, government at all levels remains efficient and well managed. Americans must also ensure that the transfers do not work grave hardships on large segments of the public, and that tax dollars are ultimately used for the purposes for which they are appropriated. of the American public for a greater affirmation and application of religious faith in everyday life, especially in a society grown so secularized. Perhaps what is needed is a recognition that the quest of scientific thinking is not necessarily in conflict with religious values and the concept of ultimate spiritual real ity.

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