What one Californian calls New Federalism, another Californian calls "mind control." That's how California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. describes the debate over Ronald Reagan's proposal to turn some federal programs back to the states.
"More people are talking about it who don't want to," Brown said last night as he arrived at the Reagans' formal dinner for the nation's governors. "It's a very esoteric subject, and they are arguing about it when they would really rather be talking about unemployment, high interest rates . . . By this mysterious process, we are talking about a subject we are totally disinterested in . . . I've been talking about it for two days--that illustrates my point."
Nearly 130 people, including governors of 48 states and territories, sat down in the White House State Dining Room to a black-tie dinner marking the end of the three-day governors' conference here. The Reagans used the Johnson china and decorated the round tables with candles, white hyacinths and porcelain American Indian sculptures. Both President Reagan and Republican Gov. Richard Snelling of Vermont, president of the National Governors Association, spoke briefly. Quoting Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan described his own plans for a "new day" for federalism and cautioned that "reforms won't work miracles." "We are restoring the partnership between the levels of the American government," said Reagan.
By transferring responsibilities to state governments, he said, "I figured if we give enough of them back, I can go to the ranch more often."
Some of what Jerry Brown described as "mind control" may have been working on Snelling, a Republican who has been an outspoken critic of the president. Last night he compared Reagan favorably to a former Vermont governor and former president, praising Reagan's loquaciousness ("You've already said more than Calvin Coolidge said in his entire life") and told the president that the governors "appreciate that you have been one of us and want the government to come back to us . . . You have demonstrated that you will treat the federal partners as partners."
Most of the governors arriving at the White House for the dinner of striped bass, lamb, eggplant and artichokes saw the three-day conference as a promising exercise of compromise. "We made more progress than I thought possible," said Democrat Charles Robb of Virginia. The Maryland governor, Democrat Harry Hughes added, "I am not entirely satisfied, but I think the groundwork was laid for negotiation on federalism."
After dinner and the entertainment by the stars of "Sophisticated Ladies," the Broadway show based on Duke Ellington's music, Reagan told the audience, "Duke taught us all to love that swing." Then the governors joined the Reagans dancing. As the U.S. Marine Band Orchestra played the theme from "Cabaret" in the foyer, the Reagans did a slow cheek-to-cheek dance, while the Robbs and Hugheses did more of a jitterbug.
Half the women on the floor were wearing the fiery Chinese red Nancy Reagan has made fashionable. "Would you care to dance?" Florida's Democratic Gov. Robert Graham asked his wife, Adele. "But I have on a black dress," she joked.
The first lady was wearing a black, one-shouldered sheath with a burst of gold and silver sequins. She pointed out that it was an old favorite.
Kentucky's John Y. Brown, a Democrat, agreed with the other Brown's view that the new federalism is a smokescreen. "Well, I think the Reagan administration has been very smart about shifting the focus. Two weeks ago it was federalism, last week it was drugs, this week we're back to federalism. I'm concerned about the $100-million deficit and interest rates. The only thing that will pull this administration out will be jobs. I haven't heard any conversation on it."
Each governor had his own view of things. John D. Rockefeller IV, the Democratic governor of West Virginia, was especially cryptic. "We made some progress with the Clean Air Act but with federalism, none." On the other hand, Republican William Clements of Texas said, "I don't know of a single governor who is not in favor of federalism. The only difference is how to do it."
After the rounds of discussions on Capitol Hill and at the White House, some Democratic governors admitted they were going home frustrated. "My fixation is on the deficit and on the burdens the states have to bear. Federalism is a concept further down the line, not the immediate concern," said Hugh Carey of New York.
Joseph Brennan of Maine said he was "somewhat" frustrated. "The agenda was set up to concentrate on federalism and volunteerism, not the 10 million people who are not working or the interest rates that are so high people can't build a house."
A negotiating team has been agreed upon by the White House and the governors. Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard Schweiker called it a "positive step . . . We crossed the hurdle of not being rejected," he said. "But I don't think anybody quite knows what the end result is. That's really quite open."
In sessions earlier yesterday House Speaker Thomas O'Neill had used Republican Gov. Pierre du Pont's age and support of Reagan's federalism program to make the point that if he were old enough to remember the Depression, he would know "local governments couldn't handle the programs." Last night Delaware's du Pont shrugged the rebuke aside. "I felt I was right back in the Congress," he said. "None of those other governors had been in Congress. The poor speaker is still part of the problem, not the solution --as he indicated by his remarks."
Republican Charles Thone of Nebraska said Reagan still has support in his state. "When Nebraska crumbles, it's all over for Reaganomics--we're the heartland." He predicted that Nebraskans will give the president's policies "probably another year, but the economy will have to turn around." Democrat Bruce King of New Mexico left feeling better about the Reagan promises. "He said there would be no winners or losers. That makes us feel better on the shortfall."