The mood of the returning Congress runs from sour to desperate.
For the election year, there are these suggested campaign platforms: (a) raise taxes that hurt people, (b) chop programs that help people, or (c) do both.
May I, from the provinces, offer an old idea that could spread joy upon this miserable scene. It will cost the federal government nothing. It will make average citizens, and therefore average congressmen and women, happy.
The idea? Act now to give back to taxpayers in states and communities control over everyday government decisions that mean the most to them.
When this idea is mentioned, the Washington-wise usually begin to screw their faces into strange (some would say dirty) looks. They are the same looks we governors thought we saw on some congressional faces one year ago as we stood at the Capitol applauding the new president's dream to limit the influence of the national government and restore power to citizens in their states and communities.
But in a year when there is nothing but misery to write home about, the Washington-wise who wish to remain in office may finally find very tempting the joyful message of "New Federalism."
Here are three reasons I believe Congress in 1982 will do more to reorganize our federal system than at any time in the last half-century:
(1) David Hodges would like to know whose fault it is if he can't get on the Portland, Tenn., city drinking water line.
Mr. Hodges and his family now get their water from a well. The well water has sulphur in it. It isn't fit to drink.
Mr. Hodges lives and pays taxes near Portland, (population 4,030). To solve his water problem, he went to the government nearest him, calling Lloyd Deasy, the mayor, and asking to get hooked up to the Portland water line.
The mayor then took what for local officials everywhere has become the appropriate action. He gathered himself, Robert Shannon and Johnny Curley from the local commission, and one city employee. They arranged to fly to Washington to see both senators and their congressman.
As the members of the Portland delegation stepped on their flight out of Nashville, they were pleased to see their governor. He, too, was going to Washington to spend a day meeting with the president's task force on federalism.
It was the same day the military took over Poland.
It occurred to the mayor and the governor that there might have been a better way for everyone to spend his time.
The senators and congressman could have turned their attention from the sulphur water in David Hodges' well to consider whether America would go to war over Poland.
The local officials and the governor might have spent the day at home developing a financing proposal for extending city water to the Portland area families with sulphur in their wells.
I believe the reason so few people vote is that they can't find a way to affect many community decisions that are most important to them.
Those decisions are few, simple and obvious. Is there adequate water and sewer? Are the streets paved and free from crime? Is the neighborhood school good? Is garbage picked up on time?
(2) There are well-developed, specific options for reordering the federal system that Congress could accept right now.
The following ideas have the most promise, especially since none costs the federal government a cent:
The Mega-Block Grant: Pick 10 states. Give them their federal money for elementary education, economic development, transportation, etc., in a big block grant with no strings. Let them run things without federal supervision for five years. If it works, bring in other states.
Turn back taxes and responsibilities: take some federal functions that are more appropriately local, e.g., building and maintaining state roads. Turn them back over to the states along with the federal tax source, e.g., gas tax, that has been supporting the program.
The Grand Swap: Divide it all up in one fell swoop. The Feds take some things; the states take the rest. The governors are working on a swap proposal under which the Feds would take over $21 billion of state Medicaid and welfare costs in exchange for state assumption of $21 billion in federal programs. There are many possible swaps big and little. This is the boldest option because it could rearrange virtually all the $88 billion in federal aid. It would have to be phased in. For the idea to work, there must be a way to keep any state from losing dollars in its trade.
(3) The time is ripe.
First, there is the political need to find a little happiness to spread over the budget-cutting misery. Power back to the people can be a joyful song.
There is today more agreement and less squabbling than usual among state and local officials, thanks to some special efforts by Gov. Richard Snelling of Vermont, chairman of the National Governors Association.
There is bipartisan interest. New Federalism has been a Republican article of faith, but now George Busbee of Georgia and Scott Matheson of Utah, the Democratic leaders of the National Governors, as well as Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona are as forceful on this issue as any Republican. Jerry Brown is poking fun at President Reagan for not changing Medicaid rules that Governor Reagan complained about 10 years ago.
The currents run deeper than political maneuvering. Movements that have fed centralism in America are dissipating.
The federal income tax--which pre-empted power and money--has been cut and indexed.
The three television networks--whose evening news shows caused a generation of Americans to look away to one place for too much leadership and too many decisions--are being replaced by dozens of channels, a more natural structure of choices for this big country.
And civil rights laws--especially the Voting Rights Act--are secure, devastating the argument that you can't trust the states to do the right thing. The same people now elect everyone.
Dr. Gallup says that today Americans by nearly 2-1 margins trust state governments more than the federal government to remain free of corruption and administer programs efficiently.
In "A God Within," Ren,e Dubos reminds our centralized societies that a human being has a deep social need to live within a small-enough group so that he can have the maximum influence over everyday decisions that mean the most to him.
President Reagan's dream is the dream of millions of Americans like David Hodges who want more say over what can be done about a well full of sulphur water, and who need to know who to blame if things they pay for don't get fixed.