The 'new' New Federalism: token, or still revolutionary?

When the President sent a scaled-down block-grant program to Congress the other day, some noted that this package was but a faint echo of Mr. Reagan's much--heralded New Federalism.

In introducing this new initiative, the President went out of his way to assure state and local officials that this was not a device for getting around their objections to taking on expensive federal projects.

When he took office in early 1981, Reagan made New Federalism the centerpiece of his plan to realign government. State and local governments were to take on costly programs that were then being run and paid for at the federal level.

Reagan's dominant campaign theme was to reduce the size of federal government. Soon he was floating a package that revolved around a federal-state ''swap.'' The federal government would have assumed the total cost of medicaid while the states took over the expensive programs of food stamps and aid to families with dependent children.

The plan immediately ran into trouble. Too many governors and mayors saw this exchange placing a new and excessive burden on them, particularly since the recession was squeezing revenue sources.

So it is that the President has now come up with a much smaller New Federalism plan. It has been described by one observer as ''looking more like a token effort than an important part of the Reagan counterrevolution.''

The President's New Federalism chief, White House assistant Rich Williamson, responded to such comments over breakfast the other morning.

''I consider a $21.5 billion program (the earlier program had a $47 billion tag on it) still relatively large,'' said Mr. Williamson.

''Second, I think the importance here is the trend - in how the federal government deals with problems. These categorical programs that are so specific and have so many regulations grew from 40 some in 1959 to 130 in 1970 to over 500 in 1980. And these tie the hands of local officials and tie the hands of the ability to transfer funds. Well, we are going in the other direction.

''Now we think that is significant. It isn't cataclysmic. But it is enough to make a difference.''

In announcing his new program, the President said: ''I'm pleased to tell you that today we're transmitting to Congress our revised federalism initiative, which incorporates four major mega-block grants to state and local governments.''

His new plan, Reagan explained, would give states and cities control of 34 programs now administered here. The President indicated the program would not reduce aid to local governments. The earlier plan would have reduced it by 25 percent.

Also, the President stresses that his new federalism initiative has been drafted with the help of state and local officials.

Says Williamson on the prospect of local leaders' response to the new proposal:

''I think that the governors association, that supported the block grants in 1981, who supported our job-training block grant as well as the mass-transit block grant in 1982, reflects a realization that the days of booming, expanding federal budgets with easy money are gone.''

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