A largely unnoticed amendment to the recently passed United States defense budget has set the stage for a legal showdown between federal and state governments. The result could ultimately hinder Washington's Central America policy. A provision in the military spending bill strips the nation's governors of their power to withhold permission for their National Guard troops to be sent abroad on peacetime training missions. A number of governors, including Toney Anaya (D) of New Mexico and Joseph Brennan (D) of Maine, are committed to supporting a legal challenge to the controversial amendment.
``In my judgment and in that of many other governors, the amendment is unconstitutional,'' said Governor Anaya, noting that Article I of the US Constitution gives governors control of training state militias.
At least two other governors, Michael Castle of Delaware (R) and Anthony Earl (D) of Wisconsin, will consider joining such a suit, although their aides said they have not made a final decision.
The amendment was introduced in August by Rep. C.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D) of Mississippi, after several governors had responded to protests in their states against the use of Guard troops for military maneuvers in Honduras.
Governor Brennan took the lead in January when he refused a federal request to have his Army Guard participate in a road-building exercise in central Honduras. The governors of Ohio and Arizona subsequently turned down requests to send National Guard units from their states to maneuvers, and two other governors said they would not send their Guard to Honduras if they were asked.
Honduras plays a crucial role in Washington's war against Nicaragua's Sandinista government. The US-backed contra rebels are based in Honduras, American forces have built airstrips and radar facilities around the country, and US troops have held several large-scale maneuvers in Honduras since 1983.
Alarmed by the governors' rebellion, the Reagan administration moved to cut the mutiny short. In July, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs James H. Webb Jr. told a Senate subcommittee that ``the governors' authority has become a vehicle to debate or influence foreign policy.'' One month later, Montgomery introduced his amendment, arguing that ``a few governors just cannot say, `I will not let my guardsmen go to train in a certain part of the world because I do not like the politics of that situation.'''
The measure passed 261 to 159, despite objections from some legislators that it raised constitutional questions. No similar amendment was introduced in the Senate, and less than two weeks later the National Governors' Association unanimously reaffirmed the governors' traditional control over Guard training. But the Montgomery amendment survived a House-Senate conference committee on the overall defense bill.
During maneuvers in Honduras, National Guard troops have held tank exercises two miles from the Nicaraguan border, conducted infantry and artillery training, and built a road. In 1986 alone, about 5,600 Guard troops from 23 states will travel to Honduras for training.
Since the military developed the ``Total Force'' doctrine in the early 1970s, the Guard has trained in 46 countries around the world. Pentagon planners had come up with this concept as they looked ahead to the demise of the unpopular military draft at the end of the Vietnam War.
Under the ``Total Force'' doctrine, the Guard and Reserves are seen as integral elements of the active armed forces. If the US were to go to war today, nearly half of the troops available for combat duty in the Army would come from the Army National Guard.
Critics contend the Honduras training could be used to provide a combat-ready force in case of an outbreak of hostilities bewteen Nicaragua and Honduras.
Guard troops on training missions could go to war, acknowledged Maj. John Smith, spokesman at the National Guard Bureau. He explained that President Reagan has the power to mobilize up to 200,000 reserves for up to 180 days, even though he must submit his action to congressional approval within 24 hours.
Under this law, the President could conceivably send Guard troops ``training'' in Honduras into combat against Nicaragua if he determined that the Sandinistas were invading Honduras, Major Smith added.
Opponents of US policy in Central America argue that a precedent for such a move was established when Arkansas Air Guard units refueled planes on their way to the December 1983 Grenada invasion, and again in April 1986 when a Washington Air Guard plane refueled US jets headed for the bombing of Libya. Both Guard actions came during ``training'' missions.
Legal observers said a suit challenging the Montgomery amendment could be filed before the end of the year.
Although he refused to send his Guard to Honduras, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt supports the Montgomery amendment. He said it forces Reagan to ``take responsibility'' for US military actions in Central America.
``The issue is acountability,'' he said. ``If the President wants to mobilize the National Guard and send them to Honduras, the buck should stop at his door.''