WHEN THE FIGHT over budget totals is finally decided, another sort of warfare will have just begun. This will be the battle waged within the authorizing committees of Congress over how the remaining federal monies are to be distributed among states and localities. Formula fights, as disputes of this sort are called on Capitol Hill, are always bloody. A new element of divisiveness has recently been introduced by the announcement that representatives of the Sun Belt states of the South and Southwest have organized a counterforce to the already active Northeast-Midwest congressional coalition.
The specter of regional warfare is especially disheartening at a time when a good-faith effort is needed to soften the impact of budget cuts by focusing the remaining money on the people and areas that need it most. Funding formulas go to the very heart of the federal role in domestic policy in the sense that the primary justification for federal involvement in many programs is that local areas are unable to meet the essential needs of their citizens.
Ideally, formulas would distribute money among areas in exact proportion to their need for help. Formulas rarely come close to this ideal. Partly, this is because data on the needs of different areas are crede and often out of date. For example, Michigan, currently in very bad financial straits, is still a substantial loser in most funding formulas because its average income is normally high. Some states may be shortchanged or favored by certain formulas because of decisions they make themselves. For example, the South gets a relatively small share of federal welfare money partly because it chooses to keep its welfare benefits low. On the other hand, this choice also gives the region an advantage in other formulas based on poverty.
There is, however, a far more pervasive flaw in most federal funding formulas -- you might call it middle-aged spread. It has its origins in the congressional article of faith that, if a program is to survive and prosper, every area must get a piece of the action whether it needs it or not. The result is a program many times larger than it needs to be and a real loss for everyone involved. Areas in need of help get less than they probably would from a better focused program. Prosperous areas pay not only to help their less fortunate neighbors -- a worthwhile investment if we still share any sense of national purpose -- but also to cover the cost of their own program share. The funds they get back are not only reduced by the cost of federal collection and administration, but also wrapped in red tape and earmarked for special purposes. So the citizens of the better-off areas might conclude, given the choice, that they would rather pay lower federal taxes and give up part, or even all, of their share of some programs they really don't need.
Buying congressional support by spreading the goodies around is such a time-honored stratagem that one despairs of much reform. Perhaps, however, in this era of drum-tight federal budgets and demand for lower federal taxes, there is some hope for statesmanship. Congressmen just might start bragging to their constituents not about what they did bring home in the way of a grant for this or a subsidy for that, but rather about what they didn't bring home in the way of higher taxes to pay for it.