Reagan aide looks at what's ahead for New Federalism

New Federalism suffers from its own complexity, concedes Rich Williamson, the Reagan aide charged with implementing this program.

''I think that only six Americans understand it,'' he quipped to reporters, who were trying to find out what happened to the program the President once regarded as his centerpiece initiative - one that he thought might well be adopted in ''a single, bold stroke.''

Under the plan, the federal government would turn back some important responsibilities to states and localities. It's not a new idea. President Nixon had his ''New Federalism'' project. It had the same objectives, and faded fast from sight after first being proposed.

Cutting the size of federal government has been one of Mr. Reagan's campaign themes since his bid for the presidency in 1976. And moving some federal programs to lower levels of government has always been part of his concept for shrinking Washington's role. But, as Mr. Williamson concedes, the ''one, bold stroke'' concept has not come about. For one thing, the President has had to spend most of his time on the economy and, more recently, foreign affairs. This, Williamson says, has prevented the President from giving the program as much attention as he would have liked.

On the surface, states always seem to be receptive to having responsibilities returned to them - until they must actually agree to it. Then up crops the concern that they will end up with expensive programs their taxpayers won't want to support. Some local officials, it seems, always voice this argument: These programs for taking care of people fell on the federal government in the first place because states refused to assume these responsibilities.

Most recently, a central element in Reagan's plan has been for federalizing medicaid but turning the other big welfare programs - including Aid to Families with Dependent Children - over to the states. Many state and city officials resist this idea, particularly in an election year when Democrats may find many votes in denouncing New Federalism as Reagan's device for making the lot of the poor and disadvantaged harder than it is.

But Williamson insists Reagan's plan ''is not dead.'' He says there will be a strong revival of the initiative come the new year and the new Congress. But he hesitates to say what form that revival will take. He says the President may seek to bring about this revolutionary change in small parts. But he quickly adds that a new, big federalism package could still emerge.

''I was just in with the President about all this,'' Williamson says. ''He's anxious to go ahead with the program. He'll make a decision on it in November or December.

Williamson says the President's approach next year may well be to avoid the controversial welfare-medicaid arrangement and concentrate on the return of programs which may get a better reception at the local level. He says that there are some $30 billion in federal transportation, health services, and education programs that would likely encounter less resistance.

Williamson says the outcome of the election will have an impact on the plan. If Reagan loses his working majority in Congress, he says, the push for New Federalism may not be all that great - certainly not the all-out, bold, effort Reagan had earlier envisioned.

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