WASHINGTON. — Washington -- When states and localities start to enforce the Brady Bill next year, some may be firing blanks.
The bill, which calls for a five-day waiting period and background check of handgun buyers, has no enforcement mechanism. It does not provide money for state and local governments to carry out its provisions and doesn't say what will happen if they don't.
This is not an isolated oversight. It is just the latest example of Washington's propensity to enact laws and regulations that impose various requirements, restrictions and procedures on state and local governments, but do not provide the money to carry them out.
For example, the Family Support Act of 1988 requires states to increase efforts to establish paternity and collect child-support payments. Other federal laws mandate Medicare and Medicaid coverage.
These are not bad laws. Often, in fact, they are important and desirable, and have broad public backing. These laws require national action in areas where many states would not act on their own. The Brady Bill, civil-rights legislation and anti-hunger programs are good examples. The problem arises when Uncle Sam passes the cost, or at least part of it, on to states without their consultation or approval. This, contends the National Governors Association, is the "20th-century version of taxation without representation."
During the 1980s, the association reports, Congress enacted 27 major laws that imposed new regulations on states and local governments or significantly expanded existing programs, costing the states and localities billions of dollars annually. And the number of mandates is increasing, to bipartisan consternation.
"Unfunded federal mandates regularly force state and local tax increases and service cutbacks, restrict the rights of state and local voters and officials to determine their own priorities, and allow the Congress to avoid responsibility for . . . increasing revenue," contends Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun, a Democrat.
"At their worst," adds Republican Gov. George Voinovich of Ohio, "unfunded federal mandates can devastate state budgets, inhibit flexibility and innovation in implementing new programs [and] pre-empt important state initiatives."
Governments outside Washington are not all ogres. Many innovations -- expansion of Medicaid services, for example -- have been initiated by individual states.
Bill Clinton, who has seen the dilemma from both sides, as governor of Arkansas and now as president, recently issued an executive order aimed at "Enhancing the Intergovernmental Partnership." It acknowledges that unfunded federal mandates have strained state and local budgets and that it is expensive and time-consuming for those governments to get waivers to federally imposed rules.
Mr. Clinton ordered executive agencies to reduce the imposition of unfunded mandates, make it easier to get waivers, and establish "regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration" with state and local governments on federal matters that significantly or uniquely affect their communities.
In Congress, several representatives and senators of both parties who previously served in state and local government also are working to address the problems of unfunded mandates.
These efforts are a good start. They set a tone of "partnership." They recognize that whether our elected officials are in Washington, D.C., the state of Washington or Washington County, Kansas, they should jointly seek a common goal -- the public well-being.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.