Washington rubs its eyes over the "new federalism." That's what President Reagan calls the philosophy that has guided his public life: rolling back the intrusion of the federal government and restoring the authority of the states and localities. If successful, it could makr a new political era.
Washington didn't quite believe it at first, but events now have gone far enough to show that Mr. Reagan means what he says -- the budget that cuts federal spending, the diminution or elimination of the regulatory agencies the new appointees all over Washington with their striking "free enterprise" views. It all points to one thing: a drive to check big government, the implementation of which seems more and more like a vigorous counterrevolution.
Nearly every president raises a new political slogan on taking office that may or may not stand the test of time. The unusual feature about Reagan is that it is not so much what he is sayingm as what he is doingm that has finally made the capital realize the sweep of his programs.
Mr. Reagan told the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that government is "no longer the strong draft horse of minority progress" and that they should put their faith in business recovery stoked by free enterprise and encouraged by his budget and tax cuts.
The President has appointed James G. Watt, who is critical of environmentalists, as Secretary of Interior; William F. Baxter, who believes that antritrust action has gone too far, to the antitrust division of the Justice Department; and Thorne G. Auchter, who sought to end federal warnings against "brown dust," to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Equally sweeping are Reagan plans to abolish or reduce federally funded social programs. He would do this by lumping them into groups in the budget bill and turning them back to the states or localities under block grants. These replace "categorial" grants, where federal money is appropriated for specific programs. Under the block-grants programs, overall appropriations generally are cut 25 percent. Reagan would abolish some agencies -- the Legal Services Corporation, the Economic Development Administration (to aid minority-owned firms), the Community Services Administration, and others. He attacks federal aggrandizement and seeks "to return decisionmaking authority to the state and local levels to eliminate overlap and duplication."
Reagan has been less flamboyant than some of his predecessors, but his "new federalism" program -- which revives Richard Nixon's 1969 phrase -- is quietly developing force and scope. In his election campaign he promised to take the federal government off the backs and out of the pockets of the American people. Voters elected him in what seemed primarily to be a "time for a change" election. Now Reagan is interpreting a substantial but ill-defined "mandate" into voter authority for an increasingly dramatic change of direction in federal government.
Like every drastic change of policy, Reagan's "new federalism" automatically has produced opponents.
"A fundamental change is being proposed" in American government, declared Democratic Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., in a televised interview July 5 .Block grants will eleveate state power at the expense of cities, he charged. On the same program, Republican Mayor Richard Carver of Peoria, Ill., supported the Reagan program.
The NAACP convention opposes cuts in federal aid, convention spokesmen emphasized. Left-of-center groups like the Ameri cans for Democratic Action are also alarmed.