In a sense what happened at the National Governors Association meeting this week could be called ''reverse federalism.'' Here, after all, was a bipartisan resolution agreed to by the governors calling for a slowdown in defense and other spending to help bring down future deficits of $200 billion or more annually.
The governors, of course, have never been hesitant about airing their views on political and legislative issues affecting the states. But what was remarkable about the resolution this time around was that the governors actually recommended a specific level for defense spending - urging that defense hikes be held to between 3 percent and 5 percent annually between fiscal years 1984 and 1988, compared to the current increase of about 9.5 percent. And while the governors would slow the rate of increase in discretionary nondefense programs to three-fourths the rate of inflation, they would provide roughly the current levels for social programs targeted at the poor, such as welfare, food stamps, and student aid.
Clearly, the Reagan administration would be wise in giving serious attention to the views of the governors. Doing so is not just a matter of reciprocity but of shrewd politics. So far as the former, there is an admitted element of fairness in striking some form of compromise with the governors. The administration, in pushing its New Federalism, has sought to turn a broad range of federal programs back to the states following careful consultation between both levels of government. Thus, if the administration can find it convenient and necessary to have such a two-way exchange on devolution - shifting programs to the states - then it would seem not unreasonable to be equally accommodating to the governors when they are urging that the federal government make certain changes in federal programs and actions that impact heavily on the states, as defense spending and deficits most certainly do.
The governors have performed a useful political service. Their analysis of the budget most likely mirrors public attitudes throughout many parts of the United States today. It should not be lost on the White House that the 30-to-10 vote in favor of the resolution included all of the voting GOP governors attending the meeting. Indeed, the 10 dissenting governors favored a harsher document.
The comprehensive policy hammered together by the governors this year is not really hard to understand, given the fact that many states have been forced to slash vital services and hike taxes as a result of recession. But as the governors are pointing out, there can be no meaningful and long-lasting recovery until the states themselves are able to put their financial houses in order. And that means that cuts in federal spending must be shared more fairly between national defense and social spending.
As governor of California, and again as President during his second year, Mr. Reagan proved himself able to strike political compromises when absolutely necessary. Such mutuality should not be ruled out as Mr. Reagan listens to governors on the budget.