Reagan's threat to the federal partnership

The current administration in Washington is undermining the national government's responsibility for fulfilling this country's broadest standard of justice. This is the standard of justice for which this country staged a revolution 200 years ago and for which it then accepted a complicated constitutional framework 13 years later.

By talking about turning power back to the states and having the federal government end its involvement in many programs, President Reagan and his co-policymakers are pandering to a vocal stream of sentiment which they believe might possibly be converted into lasting political support. It is a very dangerous course to take. It has the potential for setting up expectations which simply cannot be met without a radical and perhaps violent re-forming of our basic governmental and political processes.

Before we start such a reformation we have to ask ourselves whether we are really so dissatisfied with our centuries-long tradition of looking to the national government, its Constitution, and its courts to aid us in the fulfillment of our nationwide standard of justice.

The federal government is not the villain it is so fashionable to depict it as these days. The federal government has not usurped power unilaterally from the states and their local governments. It has acted mainly in response to requests, pleas, and strident demands for help in bringing the nationwide promises about what is ''good'' and ''fair'' back home to where we all live on a daily basis. This is the reality which grates against the myth being circulated by those groups the President is trying so hard to impress.

The legislative and executive branches of the national government respondedm from our very beginnings to state and local pressures for nationwide programs capable of implementing our broader goals. The federal judiciary has always been attentive to the national standards of justice contained in the United States Constitution, but it began its present and most active phase of involvement in 1925. No one is going to convince blacks, just to name one group among several others, that the federal courts no longer have any justification for ensuring that the 50 states accord basic rights to all of their citizens.

We have brought the current situation of the federal government's substantial involvement in our lives upon ourselves. It is very unlikely that we will voluntarily or easily ''kick the habit.'' Justice is a very powerful motivator. Once human beings make the commitment to travel down a particular road toward the highest goals achievable in this world, not beyond it, they rarely turn back. In essence, this is what we started in 1776 and 1787.

Is there some way, though, that we can lessen our self-imposed dependence on the national government without rejecting the role it was created for in the first place? Can we resolve the problem which is making some of us very unhappy without being taken in by an inaccurate version of the relationship between Washington and the states?

Yes. We can choose to make the extremely difficult effort to once again turn our cities, towns, boroughs, and states into meaningful communities (i.e., capable of realizing basic ends or purposes). In effect, we can carry out a ''quiet'' revolution in the units that we charge with our most immediate political responsibilities.

This does not mean local isolationism - the national polity would still have the most important responsibility for setting and achieving overall standards of justice. What this new course means is more citizen effort spent in defining the local meanings of basic ends, more participation in state and local political processes, and more willingness to experience the temporary pain of losing fairly fought battles whether they have taken place in the mayor's office, the state legislature, or the local courts. If nothing else, our state and local political systems offer innumerable opportunities to come back and ''fight'' another day.

On the national level it means returning to the system of categorical grants in which states and localities apply for federal money instead of having it automatically transferred to them via congressionally determined formulas. Besides being inherently inflationary, formulas shift the arena where political decisions about programs and money are made. The grant application process takes place in the legislatively monitored adminstrative arena where the skills of states and communities as political entities are rewarded. Formulas are written mainly by congressional staff persons.

The most important thing to keep in mind if we choose to take this course, and it should be especially important to the President and his advisers, is that the process cannot be legislated or mandated from above. The national government can and should encourage its other two partners in the American federal system (citizens and the states) to develop their capacities for maximum autonomy.

But when the pursuit of justice is involved, the national government cannot simply abrogate its responsibilities to the other partners nor even talk as if it is considering doing so. Such behavior is irresponsible and definitely not in keeping with the letter and the spirit of our constitutional tradition.

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