IN 1862 President Lincoln and members of Congress stepped back from the turmoil and tragedy of the Civil War and approved the Morrill Act, which authorized the establishment by the states of a network of "land grant" universities. In doing so, they laid the foundation for what is still the world's most comprehensive and democratic higher education system, and its most productive agriculture economy.In 1919, a young officer named Dwight Eisenhower was charged with moving a caravan of United States Army supply trucks from Washington to San Francisco. The trip became an extended nightmare of rickety bridges, impassable mudholes, and broken axles - and instilled in young Ike's mind a conviction that the federal government, as a matter of vital national interest, had to take the lead in creating a coast-to-coast network of modern roads. Four decades later, his vision became the US Interstate Highway Sys tem. In the depths of the Depression, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sought and won from his good friend Franklin Roosevelt a commitment of federal funds to build what was then the nation's most ambitious municipal airport complex. Thus was launched a partnership between the federal government and the cities that over the next several decades created the world's leading air transport system. For more than a century - since the US decided it really was one nation indivisible - America's greatest leaders have understood that nation-building is one of the federal government's most important responsibilities, and is best carried out through a partnership with the states. And these leaders have recognized that nation-building is not just the job of the Founders and frontiersmen, but a continuing process that each generation was required, on its own terms, to renew. In the past decade, however, Washington's prevailing vision of federal-state regulations has undergone a disturbing change. Struggling under the tremendous financial burdens associated with world leadership, an expanded social agenda, and an inside-the-beltway political culture in which the desire to spend need bear no relationship to the will to tax, the national government has drifted away from its partnership with the states. In one area after another, the federal government has pulled back from long- standing commitments to invest in basic economic infrastructure, education, and research and development. Congress and the executive branch now seem to view the states and cities not as partners in nation-building, but as just another set of "special interests" trying to raid the federal treasury. Our multi-tiered federal system, which once seemed the very essence of partnership, is slowly becoming a system for one-way transmission downward of the costs of nation-building. The federal government's simultaneous retreat from history and from the future is manifested in many areas. A new secretary of transportation undertakes a serious effort to formulate a national transportation strategy - only to see it mutate into a campaign to shift federal costs to state and local agencies. In one industry after another the technological lead is passing to the Japanese Not our problem," says the administration. And everyone in Washington is ready at the drop of a press release to talk a bout the importance of education to the nation's future - but not so ready actually to invest anything in it. Federal moves to limit state and local use of tax-exempt bonds to finance public works are also revealing. Tax-exempt borrowing was costing the federal treasury more and more money, but this was a cost that the federal government had for many decades been willing to bear in recognition of the contribution that state and local capital investments make to our national welfare. During the 1980s, however, Congress cleverly reduced the impact of tax-exempt borrowing on the treasury by arbitrarily redefining a wide range of state and local public works as being essentially "private" and therefore not eligible for tax-exempt funding. Residents of communities struggling to develop environmentally responsible ways to dispose of their garbage would no doubt be surprised, for example, to learn that Washington views many new facilities being built around the country to process municipal waste as not really serving a legitimate "public purpose." Just why the federal government has retreated so far from its partnership with the states and local governments is not entirely clear. This is not, after all, the first time Washington has grappled with serious financial woes. It may be that Congress has become more attuned to the needs of the Washington establishment than to the interests of the communities its members represent. It may be that executive agencies have come to reflect the perspectives of their top-level career employees. And it may be that the decay of the party system has left us with "national" party organizations that are not really national at all, but concerned with little more than the electoral marathons that determine who sits at the top of the Washing ton heap. Whatever the reasons, the results are clear. We are left with a governmental and political community along the banks of the Potomac that is increasingly preoccupied with its own political present tense; that considers the question of whether art is obscene to be more worthy of its attention than the future of America's air transport system; that seems increasingly incapable of even conducting a coherent discussion of the nation's long-term investment needs. The nations with which we compete have not forgotten that nation-building is a continuous process, and have been moving far more aggressively into the future. Perhaps most striking is the unprecedented drive now under way to integrate the economies of Western Europe. Countries that a half-century ago came close to destroying each other are striving to build by 1992 a political, social, and economic community that transcends today's borders, and in effect, create a new kind of nation. The breadth of their vision - and the faith in the future that it implies - is perhaps best symbolized by projects like the Channel Tunnel and the high-speed rail systems now being flung across the continent. What comparable monuments to Washington's vision of the future will our childre n have to look back on? Next year our European neighbors will with good reason celebrate their success in overcoming their history. Perhaps it would be a good time for us to contemplate why we seem increasingly unable to live up to ours.