PRESIDENT REAGAN has signed into law a requirement that Congress consider the indirect costs passed on to states and localities before it enacts federal laws. Large amounts of federal aid to state and local government carry with them a set of encumbrances worthy of the ghost of Jacob Marley.

As the result of this year's budget cutting, there is, of course, less aid to begin with, and the burden of federal rules and regulations has also been lightened somewhat. Governors and mayors aren't happy about the loss of benefits, but they'd like to see more progress toward reducing the red tape that comes with them. They would especially like Congress to abandon its practice of tacking onto federal laws requirements for states and localities to do things with their own money that the federal government wasn't willing to pay for itself.

Most of these requirements are easy to defend as being in the public interest for humanitarian, health, cultural or other reasons. The handicapped ought to have access to public facilities, non-English speaking children should be educated, historic sites should be protected and no one should dump his raw sewage into the nearest stream. Many of these objectives, however, carry very big price tags. This was especially true when Congress also stipulated that the objective be met in a closely prescribed fashion--bilingual education or wheelchair lifts on all public buses, for example--without regard to differences in local needs and resources.

The new law won't prevent Congress from legislating unpaid costs for states and localities, and it won't repeal those already in law. It requires only that the Congressional Budget Office prepare an estimate of the direct and indirect costs of any federal legislation that is expected to impose a significant burden on all states and localities or those in a particular region. This, however, should make Congress do what it didn't do when some of the most expensive rules slipped into law--stop and think about how the costs of what it is doing should be balanced against all the other claims on government at every level.