WASHINGTON vs. the states: It's been a staple United States political struggle since lawmakers wore breeches and wigs. Lately the balance of forces has favored the hinterlands - and now state governors and legislators are looking toward truly historic federalism reforms.
Forget welfare block grants and Medicaid reform. Some 300 state officials gathered here this week and talked of states having an official say in the development of federal rules and legislation.
Such a change would mark a new high-water mark of state power. At stake might be Washington's ability to impose, among other things, broad education, environment, or highway-safety laws and regulations.
The fact that state leaders are even contemplating a call for such change reflects a widespread feeling that the federal government has spread too far into areas that should be reserved for state and local governments. The implications of the conclave are clear.
''This is probably the most important meeting on federalism since the original one,'' said New York State Assemblyman Bob Wertz (R).
The delegates and observers at the ''States' Federalism Summit'' in Cincinnati represented 39 states and five nationwide organizations of state politicians, including the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors' Association. Govs. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, Bob Nelson (D) of Nebraska, John Engler (R) of Michigan, Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin, Michael Leavitt (R) of Utah, Roy Romer (D) of Colorado, and George Allen (R) of Virginia attended.
Specifically, the summiteers recommended that their organizations study four proposals for strengthening the states' hands in dealing with the federal government. National defense, foreign policy, and civil rights would be exempted. The four proposals are:
* A ''mechanism'' - which might be a constitutional amendment - that would give states the power to force Congress to reconsider laws and regulations that interfere with state authority.
* A federalism law that would give states a more effective voice in congressional deliberations. This could require Congress to cite a constitutional basis when it passes laws and to justify any preemption of state laws.
* A constitutional amendment that would allow states to propose amendments, subject to ratification by Congress. Today states can only demand a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution. Such a convention has never been called, since many judge it could legally reconsider the entire Constitution and politicians everywhere fear what may result.
* Laws or amendments to prevent Congress and federal agencies from attaching conditions to federal spending grants, regulations, and mandates.
Many legal scholars say the Founding Fathers originally intended a balance of powers, not only among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, but also between states and the federal government. Among the states' tools are the ability to petition for a constitutional convention, the 10th Amendment, and the election of US senators by state legislatures.
The 10th Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, provides that ''The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.''
But the constitutional convention has become impractical, and the US Supreme Court has ignored the 10th Amendment, state officials argue. The 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, took election of senators out of the hands of state lawmakers, providing instead for direct popular election. Thus, the state officials say, changes are needed to restore the balance between the federal government and states.
''The federal government is involved in far more things than it was intended to be,'' said Governor Leavitt.
''We've seen the arrogance of a central federal government that thinks it can develop one solution for every state and countless local communities,'' said Mr. Voinovich. ''The 10th Amendment is more textbook theory than real-life experience.''
WHILE the summit rhetoric may sound like that of the GOP, deep frustration with how the federal government treats the states cuts across party lines. ''When I was meeting with my staff in 1990 to work out the budget for the next fiscal year, I asked them: 'Tell me again why they call me governor instead of branch manager,''' said Governor Nelson.
''We're trying to make sure the states are not just an administrative arm of the federal government, but the laboratories of democracy they were intended to be,'' said state Rep. Jane Campbell (D) of Ohio.
Some lawmakers thought proposals for state disapproval of federal legislation go too far. ''I'm a little uncomfortable with putting such issues as the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Motor Voter bill, and the Fair Housing Act on the table for states to repeal,'' said state Rep. John Connors (D) of Iowa. ''We already have the right to appeal every two years in House elections and every six years in the Senate.''