The sound of distant thunder

There is a beginning of restlessness in the country, a little like the distant rumble of thunder. Mostly, Americans are expectant these days, waiting hopefully for the impact of Reagan economics. But many people are beginning to show concern over how the Reagan-initiated shift of federal programs to lower levels of government will affect their lives.

Martin Anderson, assistant to the President for policy development, was questioned at length by reporters the other day on the subject of federalism, an important aspect of Reagan's "new renaissance," as the President calls it.

Would Reagan be interested in an offer by the nation's governors to pick up the full cost of public education, transportation, and law enforcement if the federal government would assume the full cost of welfare? "No," Anderson said. He doubted that would be acceptable.

With the budget deficit looming larger than Reagan had expected, would the President seek further taxes? "No," again from Anderson. He said there would have to be more spending cuts -- that was the only acceptable answer.

And would these new trims in expenditures come in defense? Anderson indicated that a more efficient use of military manpower and some paring of military programs was in process. He gave some hint, too, which the President now has confirmed, that defense-spending goals would be lowered.But he left the clear impression that most of the budget cutting would have to come elsewhere, apparently in what are usually called the social programs.

Anderson was pressed on the President's intention to shift a major share of the social load to the states and localities. Was he aware that the federal government had assumed these responsibilities in the first place because the states had failed to do so? Did he not see the possibility that the states might fail in their responsibilities once again?

Anderson said that times had changed. He was convinced, he said, that the states now were not only quite willing to take on these responsibilities but that they also were eager to show they could do so with less cost to the taxpayer.

Actually, the nation's governors are less than sanguine about their ability to take over these tasks from Washington -- even though they seem to be asking for the opportunity to do so along with the flexibility to get their jobs done. Reporters who talked privately with a number of state chief executives recently at their conference in Atlantic City, N.J., found them expressing a common concern that they will be saddled with important programs and without the resources to implement them.

Further, the governors were worried that Reagan's federalism would bring about a fierce fight between state and local governments over who should do what , as well as over who should get the federal funds being returned from Washington.

These governors were unhappy, too, that Congress, in line with the Reagan budget victory, had cut federal aid to the states about $10 billion. They foresaw in this a trend that would mean more and more delegation to them of federal programs with less and less federal funds allocated to enable them to get the jobs done.

The word about these losses of federal revenues for services to the people is beginning to trickle down to the grassroots, causing apprehension. Will the states and localities in fact be willing or able to carry on with truly needed programs?

This anxiety is compounded by the concern of many people over the Reagan plans for social security. They have seen the move to cut off the minimum benefit. And they have heard of the Reagan proposal that would make retirement before age 65 financially unattractive. So they are asking, "What comes next?"

Added to this is a growing public uneasiness over the administration's economic program. "Give it a few more months to take effect," the President's chief economic adviser, Murray Weidenbaum, told reporters at breakfast. But Weidenbaum had to concede that the stock market was showing little confidence in the President's approach to the economy.

Referring to Reagan's mammoth tax and spending cuts, one reporter asked: "Isn't the President putting his foot on the brake and the accelerator at the same time?" Weidenbaum smiled. No, he said, this approach had been designed to stimulate the economy and bring down the inflation rate -- and it was moving in precisely that direction.

One administration aide called after the breakfast to say, "It's only the press that's getting impatient with Reagan economics. The public is still patient."

This is mainly true. But there are some signs of discontent out there.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.