Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations

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The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) was established by Congress on September 14, 1959 (P.L. 86-380). A permanent, independent, bipartisan body, the Commission’s charge included convening federal, state, and local representatives to consider common problems; serving as a forum for discussing administration and coordination of federal grant programs, including conditions and controls; providing technical assistance to the federal executive and legislative branches to determine the effects of proposed legislation on the federal system; identifying and studying emerging issues or problems confronting federal system partners; recommending the most desirable allocation of governmental functions, responsibilities, and revenues; and suggesting ways to simplify and coordinate tax laws and administrative practices to reduce intergovernmental competition and taxpayer compliance burdens.

EVOLUTION AND RATIONALE

ACIR was an outgrowth of the work of three temporary bodies. In 1949 the first Hoover Commission recommended the creation of a continuing agency to study and guide federal-state relations and to develop budgetary control systems for federal grants. In 1953 Congress created the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was concerned about the growth of federal grants-in-aid and regulations. In 1955 the Commission issued a series of research reports ranging from agriculture to welfare, and recommended the establishment of a “permanent center” in the executive branch to give continuing attention to problems in interlevel relationships. Its successor, the Joint Federal-State Action Committee, worked from 1957 to 1959 to identify functions and revenue sources that could be turned back to the states, but was unsuccessful in gaining congressional support. The Committee endorsed its predecessor’s recommendation for the establishment of a focal point in the federal executive branch to deal with interlevel problems.

Following hearings on the need for a permanent institution to pay attention to federal-state-local relations, in May 1959 legislation was introduced in both Houses of Congress to create ACIR. Senator Edmund S. Muskie from Maine and Representative L. H. Fountain from North Carolina were champions of this effort. Both served as charter members.

A unique feature was the Commission’s twenty-six-member composition. The president appointed twenty members; three represented the federal executive branch, and three the private sector. The remaining were state and local elected officials—four governors, three state legislators, four mayors, and three county officials—nominated by their respective national association. The leadership of the House and Senate appointed three members to represent each body.

This intergovernmental “prism” was a powerful vehicle for looking at problems and issues that transcended boundary, level, and sector. Congress’s rationale was that recommendations made by a body with this diverse composition were likely to be administratively and financially practical and politically feasible.

ACTIVITIES

With a budget ranging from $1 million to $2 million annually and a staff from twelve to fifty over the years, the Commission was one of the smallest federal agencies in Washington, D.C. Over its lifespan, the Commission produced 130 reports with recommendations. Major studies were released on fiscal balance in the federal system, urban and rural growth policy, substate and multistate regionalism, law enforcement and criminal justice administration, transportation, citizen participation, local government discretionary authority, the federal government’s role in the federal system, the design of federal categorical and block grants, and regulatory federalism. Another 196 information reports containing no recommendations were also released by the Commission.

Beginning in 1972 the Commission sponsored an annual public opinion poll of citizen attitudes toward taxing and spending. Another popular annual volume was statistical compilations of Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism. Also popular was the Commission’s quarterly magazine, Intergovernmental Perspective, which carried summaries of research work, updates on federal-state-local developments, and news about ACIR members and professional staff. Occasionally the Commission would sponsor conferences and convene meetings of state-level ACIRs, to collaborate on intergovernmental issues, developments, and trends.

INFLUENCE

ACIR reports were widely distributed to practitioners and scholars, and used in many college classrooms. The Commission’s recommendations were advanced through model legislation, testimony before Congress and state legislatures, and collaboration with the “Big Seven” public interest groups and state associations of local officials. For most of its thirty-seven years, the Commission’s work was influential. ACIR played a significant role in the legislative processes resulting in the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act of 1968, Uniform Relocation and Real Property Acquisition Act of 1970, Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970, and State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972 (General Revenue Sharing).

Other pioneering ACIR research and recommendations included the Representative Tax System (comparative state fiscal capacities), payments in lieu of taxes, property tax relief, indexation of personal income taxes, interstate sales taxes, and unfunded mandates reform. In the early 1990's, during a period of rising concern over the federal deficit, Congress decided to terminate appropriations to support ACIR. The Commission’s funding base had become diversified through state contributions, congressionally mandated studies, federal agency contracts, and publications sales, but congressional appropriations accounted for most of ACIR’s budget. The Commission’s case for continuation was weakened by the steady erosion of Big Seven support for its work, as its recommendations were perceived as increasingly partisan. An unpopular draft report calling for federal mandate relief on state and local governments aroused strong opposition from special interest stakeholders like organized labor and environmentalists. Offending potential liberal supporters, including those in the Clinton administration, while remaining a target for congressional budget cutters, made ACIR vulnerable.

On September 30, 1996, the Commission’s doors were closed, and a significant era for intergovernmental relations ended. No similar body has replaced it.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, “ACIR and the Federal System 1959–1989,” Intergovernmental Perspective 15, no. 4 (Fall 1989); David Brunori, “Advice to the New Congress: Bring back the ACIR,” State Tax Notes (January 15, 2001): 189–91; John Kincaid, “The U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: Unique Artifact of a Bygone Era,” Public Administration Review 71 (March/April 2011): 181-189; Bruce McDowell, “Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in 1996: The End of an Era,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 27, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 111–28; Stephen L. Schechter, ed. “Symposium on U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 14:3 (Summer 1984): 135-181; and Deil S. Wright, “The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: Unique Features and Policy Orientation,” Public Administration Review 25, no. 2 (June 1965): 193–202.

Carl W. Stenberg

Last updated: August 2017

SEE ALSO: County Government; Criminal Justice; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Fiscal Federalism; Grants-in-Aid; Intergovernmental Relations; Local Government; Public Administration; Revenue Sharing; Transportation Policy; Unfunded Mandates; Welfare Policy