Ever since President Reagan made his federalism initiative the centerpiece of his State of the Union address, a new topic has been added to the agenda of the political hot-stove league: can you trust the states to meet their responsibilities if you give them the programs Reagan wants them to run?

I like the affirmative in that debate, in part because it is the unfashionable minority view among the Washington-oriented journalists, politicians and bureaucrats with whom I spend my time. They look with suspicion, if not contempt, on lesser breeds outside the Beltway.

The other reason for taking the affirmative on state responsibility is less frivolous. Over the years I have traveled the political beat, I think there has been a steady and, at times, dramatic improvement in the competence and character of state government.

But recently, I have gone through a reporting experience that has made me wonder about that impression. With Washington Post researcher Maralee Schwartz, I did a detailed review of the way the states have been handling one of their more serious constitutional responsibilities: redrawing the lines for the congressional districts to reflect the population changes in the 1980 census.

The picture that emerges is not an ennobling one. It is, instead, a performance that hands ammunition to those who would argue that you better keep a federal hand on the controls of government, because you can't trust the states.

It is, perhaps, an unfair example, because nothing else in government is so crassly political--so subject to logrolling, horse-trading and manipulation--as the process of drawing district lines.

Still, it is 20 years since the Supreme Court, in its first affirmation of the principle of one-person, one-vote, compelled the Tennessee legislature to redraw its grossly malapportioned districts. And the "reapportionment revolution" is cited by Reagan and a lot of us lesser federalism freaks as one major reason why state government is now ready for new responsibilities.

The first thing we found was that the states are being almost casually laggard about their responsibilities. As of last weekend, with all of 1981 past and the campaign year of 1982 six weeks old, only 174 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives knew what the lines would be for their spring and summer primaries and the general election in November.

The first two primary states--Illinois and Texas--both had to extend their filing deadlines, because the districts were not set. Others face the same threat as partisan bickering delays their decisions.

The record of the state governments is actually worse than the naked numbers suggest. About one-quarter of the state legislatures have not passed a plan. Another quarter have their plans under challenge or have had them rejected by their governors or the courts.

Of the 27 states where lines are set for 1982, six have only a single at-large representative and two--Maine and Montana-- have simply postponed the process until next year. California's 1982 lines won a temporary okay from the state Supreme Court, but may have to be redrawn for 1984 and later years.

Take away the 55 seats in those nine states, and you find that only 115 district lines have really been drawn for the 1980s. And almost one-third of them--those in Colorado, Illinois and Missouri--were drawn by federal courts, after the legislatures and governors were unable to agree on any plan.

The whole process has been marked by the naked application of political muscle: vetoes and threats of vetoes, retribution against mavericks and, of course, some wonderfully creative partisan gerrymandering.

The claim that the legislatures are sensitive to the interest or needs of the powerless --whether those minorities are political or racial--is hard to prove from the redistricting record. It is the courts that have been protective of center-city black representatives, particularly in Illinois and Missouri.

The Justice Department rejected the first North Carolina plan for drawing a fishhook around Durham County, where blacks have significant voting strength, in order to accommodate a nervous congressional incumbent. It sent the Texas plan back because it diluted Hispanic voting strength in the Rio Grande Valley, and it blocked the Georgia plan for diminishing black voting strength.

Black organizations have complained that the districting plans passed in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi will reduce the chances of electing any black congressmen from those states in the 1980s. The Georgia plan was rejected last week by the Justice Department for diminishing black influence, and the other three are still under scrutiny.

The same Arkansas legislature that passed the law mandating the teaching of "creationism" (recently overturned in court as a violation of the "establishment" clause of the Constitution) also passed a districting plan that the federal court threw out for failing to meet the 20-year-old population-equality standards. It leads you to suspect that whereas the Arkansas legislature cannot read the Constitution, neither can it count in thousands.

Come on, folks. You're making it tough to take federalism seriously.