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The Mandate Habit

AS congressional conferees merge the House and Senate versions of welfare reform, will they hear echoes of their earlier debate on unfunded federal mandates?

The finished reforms could, for example, include a demand that a certain percentage of current welfare recipients get a job by a given date. That's a mandate, and it would have direct, unfunded costs for state and local governments, since it's not cheap to steer people toward jobs - especially people who may be poorly prepared for employment.

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Welfare reform isn't the only place where the mandate shoe may still fit. Republican lawmakers, who have led the anti-mandate charge, are prone to wedge mandates into crime legislation too. Among their proposals: No federal money for prison building unless inmates are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences (a multibillion-dollar proposition for states).

In fact, the legislation passed last March to do away with unfunded mandates left spacious avenues for continuing them. Laws related to discrimination and civil rights - for example, those requiring access to buildings and public transportation for people with disabilities - are exempted. That makes sense, considering the issues of equity and justice involved.

More troubling, if you're serious about limiting mandates, is an exemption for laws that tie federal requirements to federal grants and aid. That huge loophole will accommodate anything in the current block-grant train, including welfare reform.

Yet this exemption, also, has its logic. Federal funding should entail requirements that address national needs, whether it's highway construction or pollution control.

But what is, or is not, a clear national need, warranting national action? When that question is sorted out, mandating may finally recede, says analyst Alan Ehrenhalt in the current issue of Governing magazine. Should federal lawmakers plunge into law enforcement, education, and other traditionally local matters?

For now, the anti-mandates law may at least prod lawmakers to weigh what they're loading onto states and localities. And that can't hurt.

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