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Memo to the President: America needs an agency like the former Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
December 9, 2020

“We’re surely heading for a massive rethinking of federal-state-local relations in the months to come,” according to Donald Kettl, Governing Magazine’s federalism correspondent. Adding, “Issues likely to bring a re-thinking of federal-state-local relations,” include vaccine distribution, infrastructure, fiscal aid, climate change and healthcare.

In its annual review of federalism in the United States, Publius, The Journal of Federalism authors Greg Goelzhauser and David Konisky write, “The state of American federalism is characterized by polarization and punitiveness. As in previous years, political polarization continues to shape intergovernmental relations. But we also identify punitiveness as an increasingly prevalent aspect of vertical power sharing. Punitive federalism describes the national government’s use of threats and punishment to suppress state and local actions that run contrary to its policy preferences.” While much of the blame for this situation can be assigned to federal actions under the Trump Administration, the seeds of this dissonance may well have been planted a quarter century ago.

25 years ago, Congress took two apparently conflicting actions that contributed to significant change in relations between federal and state/local levels of government. One could argue that they further defined James Madison’s plan for a federal system of government to address the conflicts between the authority of states and the then-new government of the United States. The first was the termination of an important instrument intended to resolve differences between levels of government. The other action was the passage of legislation to protect state and local governments from being forced to pay for federal policy actions.

The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was an independent, bipartisan intergovernmental agency established by Public Law 86-380 in 1959. The mission of the ACIR was, “To strengthen the American federal system and improve the ability of federal, state and local governments to work together cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively.” The ACIR was disbanded in September of 1996.

From 1959 until 1996, “The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was an independent, bipartisan agency that was created by Congress to monitor and study the federal government’s relationships with state and local governments, and to promote stronger coordination and communication among levels of government.” The ACIR considered, “Key issues; monitored conditions in the intergovernmental system; investigated the effects of policy, fiscal or regulatory changes to the federal system; provided technical assistance to governments; and recommended changes in laws, regulations or practices to improve relations between governments and achieve greater balance in responsibilities and allocation of resources. The Commission consisted of 26 members,” including members of Congress, the Executive Branch, governors, legislators, mayors and county officials. ACIR also had an executive director and a staff that ranged from about 50 in the late 1970’s to less than a dozen by 1995.

Bruce D. McDowell wrote, “On 30 September 1996 the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) closed its doors, ending 37 years of advocacy for federalism and intergovernmental relations. A majority of members in the Congress felt that ACIR had become irrelevant to the issues facing them and agreed that little would be lost by terminating the commission. The Clinton administration, although supportive until near the end, withdrew its’ support out of displeasure with the commission’s handling of the unfunded federal mandates issue. The national associations representing state and local governments were ambivalent. ACIR was no longer looked to for solutions to the nation’s intergovernmental relations problems. With the exit of ACIR, the federal government’s last resource for addressing broad intergovernmental issues-beyond the confines of individual programs-is gone.”

It would be important for the incoming Biden/Harris Administration to have a forum for examining and suggesting improvements to the relations between federal, state, local and tribal governments as it takes office. President-elect Biden should consider establishing a task force modelled on the former ACIR for that purpose. Governors, legislators, mayors, county leaders and municipal managers all have national associations who could provide knowledgeable, articulate members. The Administration and Congress could select members to represent them as well. Since it’s unlikely to resolve every issue before January 20, 2021, an Executive Order, rather than taking time for passage of a Congressional act, might be the best way to continue the discussions as long as the need exists.

Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served for a time as President of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Association. Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. His email address [email protected].

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