HIGH OFFICIALS of the administration keep making the point that one of the president's goals is to transfer as many federal programs and responsibilities to the state as he can. That is the motivation for the idea, floated out of the White House last week, of "decentralizing" enforcement of environmental, health and safety programs. It is also what motivates the proposal to lump existing aid programs into block grants to state and local governments.
But underlying these suggestions is a basic and, as yet, unanswered question.Are the states willing and able to take over one federal program after another? If they are not, the idea of decentralization is simply a cover for the abolition of the programs that are to be decentralized.
Take the Clean Air Act. James C. Miller III, director of the vice president's regulatory task force, said the other day that states ought to have the right to decide how clean they want their air to be unless that causes serious regional problems.
That statement has a nice touch of the philosophy of federalism to it, but what does it mean in practice? To begin, the air quality problems of most large cities are interstate matters because urban development pays little attention to state boundaries.Beyond that, how many state governments have either the inclination or the capacity to deal with this problem? California, where many of the Reagan ideas were born, undoubtedly has both. But what about the other 49 states?
Legislatures are a part-time business in most of them. Things like committee staffs with experts are usually regarded as luxuries. The lawmakers themselves are unlikely to become experts on anything other than their own professions because they must devote most of their time to earning a living. The missing expertise is provided by special-interest groups, which are at least as influential in most state capitals as they are in Washington. You need not spend much time in places like Annapolis or Richmond to realize that the legislatures in some states are ill equipped to take on much more lawmaking and policy-setting than they now handle.
That is only the beginning of the problem. Where are the states to get the money to pay for these inherited programs? If it comes from Washington, the states have the joy of spending money without the responsibility of raising it -- an inherently dangerous circumstance. If it is to be raised by the states, which local taxes are going to go up?
The federal government, after all, did not become involved in clean air, clean water, occupational safety and aid to special kinds of education -- to mention only a few objects of decentralization -- simply out of a desire in Washington to run the country. It became involved in part because state governments were ignoring such problems or had proved themselves incapable of dealing with them or had refused to raise the money to pay for them.
There is something to be said for decentralizing government. The advantages of focusing responsibility and eliminating red tapes are obvious. But before Congress takes such an abrupt turn, it should at least examine the ability and the desire of the states (all of them, not just California) to carry out the programs that are to be assigned to them.