President Bush's proposal to wrap up a diverse number of federal programs into a $15 billion package and give the money to the states in lump sum block grants - along with authority to tailor the spending to state needs - is an excellent idea.
Bush's plan differs from previous block grants in that it seeks to gather a broad range of domestic programs, such as education, pollution control, urban development, welfare and public housing, rolling them into a single grant and giving the money and responsibility to the states.The plan would eliminate a great deal of federal red tape and allow states more flexibility in using the money. But there is resistance in Congress, which doesn't like the idea of relinquishing control of programs.
Members of Congress tend to want political credit for spending money on specific programs instead of having the funds disbursed for a collection of purposes as part of a vague "grant." It's a political turf battle.
Governors, while they generally applaud the concept, have more legitimate worries. They fear that once a program of block grants is begun, it may lead to more responsibility for states, but ultimately less money.
Less ambitious block grants have been provided to the states in the past. That's fine to start with, but Congress has a way of trimming the grants in any budget squeeze. It is easier to cut "grants" - which can come to be viewed as a federal giveaway - than to slash specific programs.
That leaves the states with the programs, but not the cash to run them. Since most states face chronic budget problems, such a transfer could be a major burden down the road. It has happened before with federal grants.
Despite such concerns, governors are taking the proposal seriously. They particularly like the idea of having more freedom to experiment. One of the enduring problems with federal programs is that they come in "one size fits all" packages and don't allow for differences in states - differences that can be profound.
Unfortunately, despite the opportunities and flexibility that block grants might provide, most analysts believe it will be an uphill fight to get the proposal through Congress.
After all, when it comes to a choice between doing the best thing for the country or holding onto congressional power - Congress almost always opts for political control.