The president has once again confounded his adversaries by wading ashore on a new beachhead far behind the battle lines. Faced with another year of trench warfare over federal budget cuts, he now proposes to break the impasse by simply handing some 50 federal programs back to the states.
The president's proposal to restructure American government is both elegant and imaginative. Yet state and local officials are already putting on green eyeshades, picking up yellow pencils and reading computer printouts to reckon their gain or loss in each program category. The president deserves better; at the very least he is entitled to a serious and thoughtful response from Congress and all elected officials.
The president has once again accurately characterized the problem. Since the New Deal, an accretion of more than 500 categorical programs has intruded the federal government into our lives at every level from the very important to the trivial. Congress does a little of everything, but hardly anything well. It ought to be worrying about arms control and defense instead of the potholes in the street. We just might have both an increased chance of survival and better streets.
If the president's new federalism is to become reality, as I believe it should, we ought to be addressing three important issues that the president did not pursue in his State of the Union address.
First, we must develop a national agreement on which programs should be run in Washington and which should be left to state and local government. There is a gathering consensus that matters of historical local concern, such as streets, airport construction, waste-water facilities and many education programs can and, indeed, will be adequately addressed at the local level.
The major issue will be the entitlement programs, such as Medicaid, AFDC and food stamps. The nation's governors have long argued that these programs are properly a national responsibility. When the unemployment rate is 16 percent in Michigan but only 5.5 percent in Texas, it is manifestly unfair to ask Michigan residents to shoulder welfare burdens created by national economic policies. The president has foreseen this issue and proposed a disingenuous swap: federalize Medicaid to induce state acceptance of welfare and food stamp responsibilities. That proposal should be rejected; the safety net (the president's phrase) ought to be fashioned as a matter of integrated national policy equally applicable to an elderly citizen or a malnourished child whether he lives in Maine, Mississippi or Arizona.
Second, the president must convince us that his program is not simply a front for neglecting civil rights and abandoning the hard-won gains of blacks and other minority groups. Many federal assistance programs, notably education, were created to provide equal opportunity for minority groups victimized by racial discrimination. The president's waffling on the Voting Rights Act and his permissiveness in allowing tax exemptions for educational institutions that discriminate are not reassuring.
Nonetheless, there may be better ways than scatter-gun grant programs to ensure continued progress in civil rights. For example, intrastate equalization of financial aid between rich and poor school districts might do more to ensure educational quality than a dozen catergorical grant programs. In place of federal aid, Congress could devise a simple law requiring all states to provide a basic statewide level of school support, something that more than 20 states have already done.
Third, the president must forthrightly address the issue of inequities among states in per capita taxing power and program need. Although these disparities have been heavily relied upon in Congress in creating new programs, the fact is that the gap between rich states and poor states has narrowed dramatically in recent years. No state or city ought to demand continued-level funding just because it was the lucky recipient of a windfall program in the past. Alaskans, who pay virtually no taxes and receive dividend checks each year, may already be getting too much federal aid; in Mississippi, with the lowest per capita income in the country, there may well be a case for supplemental federal aid.
The president's program is revolutionary in the best American sense of the word. He deserves a chance to succeed. Congress, the governors and state and local officials must put aside the green eyeshades and rise to the occasion.