Those who are lamenting the apparent loss of political interest in the "new federalism" (for example, David Broder on this page, April 14) ought to be more rigorous in separating wheat from chaff.

That we have had an excessive growth in the number of small categorical federal programs is hardly to be argued with. That we have seen excessive extensions of paperwork and other intrusion by federal bureaucrats is hardly a new observation either.

But these are not the big issues about the future of federalism.

In terms of how we meet human and social needs, there are three major categories of federal activity, each raising different issues.

The first relates to income. Here there should be no argument, President Reagan to the contrary notwithstanding, that the income needs of people are the same wherever they live, with variations only in shelter and energy costs due to differences in climate. When President Reagan offered to trade national assumption of Medicaid for state assumption of welfare and food stamps, he was half right and half terribly wrong. Medicaid should be nationally financed at an appropriate minimum level, with appropriate mandated minimum service levels, but so should the other income programs. The nation's governors--or should one say, even the nation's governors--agree with this. The proffered Reagan trade here was not new federalism in any constructive sense.

The second relates to federal standards in various program areas. Here governors like Babbitt of Arizona do us no service when they simplistically say that an area like education should be ceded in its entirety to the states. The reason we have Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with funds targeted to the delivery of basic reading and math skills to poor children, is because the states historically did not respond to these children. Such children and their parents have no more political power in state capitals than they ever had, and there is consequently no reason to believe they would do any better now if they had to move their fight for scarce dollars to the legislatures. The same goes for Public Law 94-142, which has wrought major constructive changes in the education of handicapped children around this nation. Only 8 percent of the nation's educational dollar comes from federal sources, hardly enough to destroy the tradition of local control over education that we have, and should have, in America. Federal aid to education has always been carefully limited and targeted. It serves no one well to thoughtlessly advocate abdication.

The same set of observations can be made about the standards for foster care and the stimuli for adoption involved in the Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act, for the Runaway Youth Act and for the Legal Services Corporation, all of which the Reagan administration wants to wipe away into block grant packages. And the list goes on and on.

The third area is where the federal government simply provides money without much in the way of strings attached. Here we would be talking about general revenue sharing, community development block grants, vocational eduation, social services, and the new block grants in mental health, alcoholism and drug abuse. Here the issue is not federal leverage or intrusion, but rather which level of government has the most progressive tax structure and is the best level at which to raise the needed revenue. This is certainly the ripest area for tradeoffs beyond merely collapsing tiny categorical programs into larger blocks, but the right policy answer on it is far from clear.

There are excesses on both sides, to be sure. The House staffer who was reported recently as saying that if you line up all the dummies in the world the first 12 would be state legislators is as guilty of excess as those who want to dismantle half a century of development in a few months of know-nothing legislative frenzy.

Still, we should be acutely aware that governmental quality at the state and local levels is still very uneven and that improved professionalism in executive branches doesn't necessarily coincide with elevated political behavior in legislatures. A case in point would be a recent episode in Mississippi. Gov. William Winter wanted to establish public kindergarten throughout the state. He proposed to finance this advanced notion by a modest increase in the oil and gas severance tax, which had not been raised since 1944. What the good governor failed to reckon with, however, was his speaker of the house, one C.B. ("Buddie") Newman. When the proposal--strongly opposed by the oil and gas firms--finally reached the House floor for its day in the sun, Speaker Newman gaveled the body into adjournment for the day, effectively killing the measure under the legislature's arcane parliamentary rules. The advocates of the new federalism might take this little story to heart.

That there must be a thoughtful debate about what we want from government and at what levels should be a given. But the Reagan administration has given us an ersatz new federalism for the wrong reasons at the wrong time. One hopes that its obituary notices are accurate and that those who mourn its passing will turn their energies to the promotion of a thoughtful debate among protagonists who are all dealing good faith from the top of the deck.