Two secretaries, unencumbered by bosses, are sorting through papers in a disheveled room on the Commerce Department's second floor. The door, standing open, bears the label, "Ozarks Regional Commission."
"What's going on?" the secretaries are asked.
"We are phasing out," comes the response.
Indeed they are. By Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, the Ozarks Regional Commission and seven other so-called "Title V Regional Commissions" will have expired, the victims of the Reagan administration's budget cuts and their own inability to acquire and spend enough federal money to build a broad enough political constituency to save themselves from Budget Director David A. Stockman.
The eight Title V Regional Commissions are not to be confused with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which was also targeted by Reagan but which survived, at least for the present. Although both the ARC and the Title Vs were authorized in 1965, they were created under different legislation. The ARC, which includes parts of 13 nearby states, including Virginia and Maryland, has its own budget and reports directly to congressional committees; the Title Vs were creatures of the Commerce Department and had to function within its budget constraints.
The total budget for all eight Title V commissions is about $50 million this year; some of that is for salaries, the rest is parceled out among 423 grants, many of which will continue into the next fiscal year. The only question left is how those grants will be monitored after the regional commissions are dead, and that problem is being solved in the commissions' remaining weeks.
The ARC budget, meanwhile, has been cut by about a third to $215 million, including $165 million for the Appalachian highway system, a separate highway program.
The commissions were supposed to develop regional plans and provide money for some real projects, including pipelines, highways, vocational education programs and health care centers. In some cases, regional commission dollars were funneled to hard-pressed localities so they would have the money needed to match federal dollars for other federal grant programs. In other words, federal money was used to match federal money.
Each commission included the governors of the states and a presidentially appointed federal co-chairman, a concept that, in theory, was supposed to provide a useful forum for cooperation between governments. Frequently, however, those federal co-chairman jobs proved to be high-paying political plums for the party in control of the White House.
Terry Chambers, a ramrod-straight Californian with close-cut white hair, piercing blue eyes and a long record of political service to Ronald Reagan, is the executioner, the last "federal co-chairman" for all eight commissions.
"There is no how-to book on terminating major programs," said Chambers. "We had to work this out as we went along."
The regional commissions, Chambers said, were a "worthwhile program," but one that was "abused." The money, he said, tended to be used for "pork-barrel" local projects rather than for regional purposes.
Robert N. Wise, director of the Council of State Planning Agencies, an affiliate of the National Governors' Association, sees it somewhat differently. "I think the biggest gap this leaves is the lack of a recognized federal entity for regional negotiations," he said.
"This gap may be filled; if so, it will be filled by groups that have stronger regional identification and less accountability to the federal government. That may be good from a state point of view, but it may be harder on the federal government."
Ken Baskette, Carter administration federal co-chairman of the Four Corners Regional Commission, said he has "mixed feelings" about the demise of the Title Vs. "I think it's too bad that they never understood they could have been more effective than they were." he said.