AS FOR THE FUTURE, you may have noticed that President Reagan's federal reorganization would take effect only some years from now. Dealing with these futuristic possiblities may seem a pleasant diversion to a Congress that would otherwise have to concern itself with the imminent realities of looming deficits, massive unemployment and painful budget cuts. But what about the specifics of the president's proposals?
One can easily imagine almost every committee in Congress tied up in knots over the details of what the president describes as an even swap. If it's so even, how come welfare for families and food stamps--which the states would take over--are shown costing $3 billion less in 1984 than they currently cost? Who picked up the difference in the meantime? About that "grass-roots" trust fund that's supposed to pay for the 40 programs that will be shifted to the states--what happens when it phases out?
The president says that the states can then raise the same taxes themselves, but 60 percent of that fund comes from the oil windfall tax. The oil tax is an excise tax levied at the point of production. Collecting it at the state level would be nice for Texas and Alaska, but it wouldn't do a thing for Michigan. All of the federal excise taxes, in fact, have oddities in their regional distribution. As for other taxes, states are already raising them to meet their present obligations--not to mention the new ones that this year's federal budget cuts may thrust upon them.
What rationale, except numerical convenience, underlies the choice of programs to be swapped? Why, except perhaps to please the hospital lobby, should the federal government take over Medicaid when many states have shown themselves to be much tougher and more innovative in controlling medical costs? Medicaid is now a federal-state partnership, and the benefits vary sharply from one state to another. Whose Medicaid program is to be established nationwide as the uniform federal standard--generous California's or ungenerous Texas'?
Why, except for their unpopularity, give welfare for families and food stamps to the states when logic and fairness suggest that more, not less, national uniformity is desirable for these programs? Why, except to please the teachers' lobbies, retain most federal education dollars when education is one area that states are most willing and able to assume?
Debating these--and thousands of other--details will be diverting and, possibly, instructive as well. But it won't do much to meet the current problems that urgently confront Congress. The administration's agenda for the future deserves a thorough airing, but not at the expense of distracting congressional and gubernatorial attention from budget strategy for the year immediately ahead.