The dispute between the Reagan administration and a group of governors over the use of National Guard units in ``training'' assignments in Central America could have unexpected and unintended consequences. On Tuesday, a federal judge in St. Paul, Minn., dismissed a suit filed by Minnesota and backed by 10 other states, ruling that the governors have no constitutional authority to withhold consent for National Guard training missions. Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich (D) said he would appeal the ruling, calling the issue ``a clear example of the federal government's encroaching on state powers.''
National Guard units have been training all over the world for some 20 years with the fulsome support of the state governors, their peacetime commanders in chief, as expressed in repeated statements by the National Governors' Association.
Criticism of the practice emerged only when it appeared to at least some of the governors that what the Reagan administration describes as ``training'' is a subterfuge designed to hide an operational role dodging the constitutional restrictions on the use of such forces in a wartime or quasi-wartime role.
Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, quotes Col. William Comee, a former commander of the principal United States base in Honduras, as stating that the Guard mission in Central America is to ``intimidate and harass'' Nicaragua.
That, say Mr. Babbitt and the other governors who have kept the issue alive, takes the National Guard out of training and makes it an instrument of pro-contra politics. Once having decided to make the Guard an instrument of his foreign policy, Babbitt maintains, President Reagan should have used the powers available to him to order the National Guard into federal service under the President's command. That, however, would have required a declaration of national emergency, something the President has sought to avoid.
The authority of the governors over the Guard in peacetime derives from the ``militia clauses'' of the US Constitution, themselves the product of concerns about creating a large standing army under presidential control. Until now the National Guard has used that constitutional protection to oppose successive Army and Air Force attempts to end its state status and incorporate it into the Pentagon-controlled Army and Air Force Reserves.
Surprisingly, the military leadership of the National Guard has turned against the dissident governors with a vengeance.
The Montgomery amendment, passed by Congress last year to strip the governors of their authority to block training in Central America and now the central issue in the federal court case, was written by Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D) of Mississippi. Representative Montgomery, a retired brigadier general in the Guard, is also the principal spokesman in Congress for the Guard's Washington lobby, the National Guard Association.
Also, the military leadership of both the National Guard and the federal reserve forces has become more politicized during this administration than it has been since World War II.
Lt. Gen. Herbert Temple Jr., chief of the National Guard Bureau, through which some $8 billion in federal support for the state military units is disbursed each year, is a longtime political associate of the President.
Maj. Gen. William Berkman, a former Chief of Army Reserve, came to Washington from the same reserve unit as Attorney General Edwin Meese III and is a full-time executive of the Reserve Forces Policy Board in the office of the defense secretary.
General Temple is threatening to withhold federal support from the Ohio Guard program unless Gov. Richard Celeste (D) ends his opposition to the training of Ohio units in Honduras.
Whether or not the 12 governors are able to challenge successfully the Montgomery amendment as a violation of the Constitution's ``militia clauses,'' the stage may have been set for the sort of overhaul and consolidation of the Guard and reserve system that was tried, but failed, in 1964-66 during the Johnson administration.
So long as the Guard could oppose any fundamental change with a solid phalanx of governors no one in the federal government dared to challenge the system by which each National Guard unit is operated as a private club with membership, promotion, and federal pay the sole province of the unit commander. Nor was anyone able to attempt to reform the system by which politically connected junior guardsmen, or nonguardsmen, can circumvent the military promotion system. In the case of the guardsmen, they can wreak vengeance on those who may have denied them a promotion by obtaining appointment to the post of adjutant general, the quasi-political office through which the governors exercise command of the Guard when it is not in federal service.
The governors have been the Guard's only solid base of political support. Having turned against them, the Guard may find that its support among previously sympathetic, but anticontra members of Congress also has been damaged.
The dual state and federal National Guard and reserve systems are extremely expensive in terms of duplicative headquarters and administrative and logistical systems. The programs may be even more costly in terms of the rigidities by which expensively trained officers are denied assignments and promotions outside the unit in which they began their service.
As the federal military budget contracts, the demand for Guard and reserve reform is sure to grow.
If proponents of total federal control successfully exploit the vulnerabilities created by the Montgomery amendment and eliminate the last vestiges of the Guard's state status, a fundamental change will have occurred in the intricate domestic military balance established under the Constitution.
Thus a long-term legacy of the Reagan administration could be the destruction of one of the strongest constitutional safeguards of at least limited state sovereignty: not exactly what Reagan said he sought when he took office.
William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs.