Public Officials’ Associations

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Consistent with Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that Americans are fond of organizing themselves into a multitude of clubs and other voluntary associations, elected public officials in this country have long sought each others’ company to discuss issues of common concern. Starting in the early twentieth century, elected officials at the state and local levels began creating associations under which to meet regularly and exchange ideas about laws and public policy, to commiserate about common problems, and to devise and carry out strategies for promoting shared professional interests.

With increasing intergovernmentalization of policy development and administration at the time, state and local officials’ jobs became increasingly intertwined with those of appointed and elected federal officials, and their associations also provided a means for lobbying the federal government on policy decisions affecting subnational governments. In all of these ways, then, the basic mission of public officials’ associations closely resembled those of other professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and many others.

While public officials’ associations were initially designed to serve the professional needs of their members, they also filled an institutional gap left by the U.S. Constitution. The system of government outlined in the U.S. Constitution is federal in form, but the framers put in place what has turned out to be a rather meager set of institutions for promoting the interests of state and local governments. Unlike the many legal relationships among the three branches of the national government that are spelled out in some detail in constitutional text, the relations between the national government and state governments are spoken of almost not at all. Indeed, the founders’ success in envisioning and devising a complex set of checks and balances among the Congress, the executive, and the federal courts is matched by a failure to erect much more than parchment barriers between state and federal authority. The leading framers (particularly James Madison) anticipated that the U.S. Senate and the role of states in running elections and sending electors to the Electoral College would be sufficient to safeguard state governmental interests, but as early as the 1820s, it was clear that U.S. senators were performing this function inconsistently at best.

Thomas Jefferson remarked on the insufficiency of the Constitution’s formal intergovernmental institutions when he noted in an 1807 letter to the governor of Massachusetts the need for “a more intimate correspondence between the executives [that is, the governors] of the several States, & that of the Union” (Jefferson 1896, 76). Jefferson recommended that each year, after the president fulfilled his constitutional duty of offering information to Congress on the state of the Union (Article II, Section 3) and recommendations for legislative action, he might then “make communications in like manner to the executives of the States, as to any parts of [those recommendations] that the legislatures might be alone competent” (Jefferson 1896, 76). While Jefferson’s advice was not acted upon, the need remained for more direct and formal lines of communication between state and federal officials.

Enter the public officials’ associations. Although there are hundreds of nonpartisan associations of American public officials, seven are of particular note, since they represent elected officials of state and local governments. The “Big Seven” associations represent governors (through the National Governors’ Association, which first met in 1908 and which was made permanent four years later), state legislators (through the National Conference of State Legislatures, founded in 1975), local officials (the National League of Cities, founded in 1924), mayors of cities with populations over 30,000 (the U.S. Conference of Mayors, founded 1932), city managers (the International City-County Management Association, founded in 1914), and counties (the National Association of Counties, founded 1935); in addition, the Council of Governments (founded in 1933) exists to serve the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of state governments in a variety of capacities and to facilitate interstate cooperation on policy implementation.

Each of these associations was formed for specific reasons at a particular time, and in some cases, the creation of the association merely formalized meetings that had already been taking place. The organization that would become the National Governors’ Association, for example, grew out of a White House meeting of governors called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to discuss conservation and natural resources, an area in which he hoped to win support for his policy ideas. The following year, the governors met again—this time on their own—and in 1912 they formed a permanent governors’ conference that would deal with a wide range of issues of mutual concern. The story of the NGA’s creation is recounted here as an illustration of the political and policy-related factors that brought together public officials initially and on an ongoing basis.

MEMBERSHIP

Membership in these associations is voluntary—no public official is required to join—but it is restricted to the officials who currently hold a particular office, such as a governorship or a legislative seat. On a day-to-day basis, the members of these seven associations—elected officials—are back in their home states performing their official executive or legislative duties. Members formally meet only once or a few times each year at conferences and seminars, so the ongoing business of the associations is done by permanent staff members, many of whom track and analyze legislation currently before Congress, lobby members of Congress and their staffs for more state- and locality-friendly legislation, and assess the effects of existing policies on state and local governments. Given the importance of the federal government in state and local governance, each of these seven associations has an office located near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and several also maintain offices elsewhere around the country.

The seven associations discussed here are nonpartisan, meaning that they exist to serve the common interests of all of their members, regardless of their particular political or ideological beliefs. Certainly, governors, state legislators, and mayors have strong partisan opinions, but—perhaps contrary to popular opinion—these do not influence every aspect of their jobs. Elected officials who wish to pursue the partisan interests that they share with other officials have the option of joining partisan public officials’ associations such as the Democratic Governors’ Association or the American Legislative Exchange Council (an association for conservative state legislators).

Public officials’ associations are funded in a variety of ways. The National Governors’ Association, for example, operates on annual dues money appropriated by each state legislature, federal grants and contracts, and donations from corporations and private foundations. The Council of State Governments is funded through state appropriations; grants; and revenues generated by conferences, the sale of publications, contributions, and investment income.

STRUCTURES

To deal effectively with the wide array of issues that concern their members, each association has various committees organized around particular policy areas. For example, the standing committees of the U.S. Conference of Mayors include committees on Education, Community Development and Housing, Workforce Development, and Economic and Social Justice. Between annual or semiannual meetings, members on these committees may work with the association’s permanent staff to monitor legislative developments and to work on policy positions or proposals for presentation to the entire association’s members.

To make more fundamental decisions on behalf of the entire association, several of the Big Seven associations also have executive committees that have the authority to act on behalf of the association between annual meetings.

FUNCTIONS

In general, public officials’ associations serve many of the same functions as other national professional associations. These can be categorized broadly as professional development, the sharing of policy ideas and “best practices,” and intergovernmental advocacy and lobbying.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Professional development consists of socializing newcomers into the profession, providing information and assistance in meeting professional goals, sponsoring seminars and other educational opportunities for members, and providing regular opportunities to meet and network with others similarly situated. For example, the National Governors’ Association sponsors a new governors’ workshop after each election to assist newly elected governors with developing an agenda, hiring a staff, and working with the legislature. Similarly, the National Conference of State Legislatures sponsors skills-building seminars for new legislators and legislative staff.

Newly elected state and local officials may begin their jobs without a good understanding of how the federal government affects their own work. A state legislator likely decides to run for office because he or she holds strong views about how to improve the lives of his or her state’s residents. Once in office, he or she may sponsor legislation addressing a particular public problem only to discover that existing federal laws or regulations restrict or undercut the sorts of steps state governments may take in that policy area. In the face of such frustrations, a public officials’ association can help the member develop a more sophisticated approach to addressing the problem, perhaps by working cooperatively with the federal government or other state governments, or perhaps by attempting to alter the federal laws or regulations that impede state action.

SHARING DATA AND INFORMATION ON BEST PRACTICES

States and localities have long been characterized as “laboratories of democracy” where a wide range of public policies can be developed, implemented, and assessed. The knowledge concerning best practices that emerges from such experiments are sometimes used by Congress as the bases for national legislation. This was true, for example, of the legislation establishing the Social Security Administration as well as the welfare reform legislation of 1996 (both of which borrowed heavily from policies that had been implemented in Wisconsin). In addition to this sort of “vertical” sharing (between levels of government), there is a great deal of “horizontal” sharing of policy knowledge among state and local governments. For example, if a state legislator in Kansas is interested in introducing legislation that would ban the use of cellular telephones while driving, he or she can draw upon the experiences with such legislation in other states. Such information is shared among members through magazines and other publications, Web sites, conference calls, conferences, and seminars.

Each of the public officials’ associations discussed here sponsors conferences at least once a year, and these serve as forums for the sharing of ideas among state and local officials. The opportunity to meet and talk with other officials provides members with invaluable perspectives on how to do their jobs more effectively. The National Governors’ Association has a subsection called the Center for Best Practices, and the National Association of Counties notes on its Web site that its publication County News “provides a ‘heads-up’ on an issue before your county faces the same problem, saving your county money and headaches” (http://www.naco.org).

In addition to sharing general policy data and analysis with its members, the Council of State Governments also provides a forum for proposing actual legislation for adoption by other state legislatures. For the past sixty years, it has published Suggested State Legislation, which contains actual pieces of legislation that can be introduced in the legislatures of other states. In this way, the best versions of timely legislation can spread to other states. When this happens, the result may ironically be to reduce state-to-state policy variations.

ADVOCACY AND LOBBYING

An important function of public officials’ associations is to serve as an arena in which state and local officials develop clear statements of their institutional interests vis-à-vis the federal government and engage in coordinated efforts to pursue those interests at various stages of the national policy-making process. While this task was less critical in the days of “dual federalism”—when state and federal activities proceeded largely on parallel rather than intersecting tracks—as state and local governments were increasingly called upon to participate in the development and implementation of federal policy, the sources of intergovernmental cooperation and conflict multiplied accordingly. As such, public officials’ associations have developed the institutional capacity to appeal directly to federal policy makers, and these elements are collectively identified as the “intergovernmental lobby.”

Those who see American government exclusively through the lens of partisan politics have trouble understanding what a group of Republican and Democratic state officials could possibly agree on. Viewing government through the lens of federalism, however, reveals that all state and local officials share a set of basic interests that stem from their location in the federal hierarchy. State and local officials do not want their laws and policies preempted by federal decision makers. They do not want unfunded mandates imposed by higher levels of government. They want steady and predictable streams of federal funds to flow to their governments so that they can plan and budget accordingly. When states and localities are called upon to administer federal policy, they want to be given flexibility to meet national goals through a variety of locally appropriate means rather than being given detailed prescriptions that must be followed.

These sorts of generic preferences are made specific each year in the policy positions adopted by most public officials’ associations. Such positions are hammered out so that state and local officials can speak collectively with one voice to the public and to federal policy makers about current policy-making efforts. For example, the U.S. Conference of Mayors describes its process as follows: “During the Conference’s Annual Meeting in June, standing committees recommend policy positions they believe should be adopted by the organization. Then, every member attending the annual meeting is given the opportunity to discuss and vote on each policy resolution. Each city, represented by its mayor, casts one vote. The policy positions adopted at the annual meeting, collectively representing the views of the nation’s mayors, are distributed to the President and Congress” (http://www.usmayors.org). Ideally, an association will anticipate the sorts of policies that Congress will be considering in the upcoming year and will develop a policy that will guide the association’s advocacy and lobbying efforts as a particular piece of legislation is taking shape in congressional committees.

Collectively, the policy positions of the Big Seven associations offer perhaps the clearest statements available today of the American political tradition of limited national government that has gone by such names as anti-federalism, states’ rights, and decentralization. While some aspects of the states’ rights tradition are blemishes on our national history (most obviously, slavery and its successor, Jim Crow), the states’ interests that are promoted today by public officials’ associations are a decidedly more benign set of positions regarding nonfederal governance and decision making across a broad range of policy areas.

Once established, an association’s policy positions serve as the basis for a variety of advocacy and lobbying activities on behalf of its members. The ability to speak with one voice is the central source of influence for an association, particularly for nonpartisan organizations like the ones discussed here. If all fifty governors agree on a single policy position and present that position to Congress and the president, for example, they are much more likely to be taken seriously than if all fifty articulated separate positions. As such, public officials’ associations try very hard to come up with strongly worded policy positions that will garner the approval of all or most of their members. Predictably, this is not always possible, and sometimes an association takes either a very vague or general stance on an issue or simply takes no collective position at all.

The advocacy efforts of public officials’ associations include writing opinion pieces and letters to the editor, appearing on television, sending press releases, testifying before congressional hearings, and meeting personally with lawmakers and the president. Because elected officials only occasionally have the time to perform these tasks themselves, they are usually done in their names by an association’s staff.

Any discussion of the effectiveness of public officials’ associations in safeguarding and promoting the interests of states and localities vis-à-vis Washington must include evidence that these officials periodically succeed in stopping or altering federal actions that impose unwanted costs and burdens. A survey of these efforts over the last few decades reveals a mixed record. On the one hand, state and local officials have successfully worked for General Revenue Sharing, welfare reform (twice), transportation bills, unfunded mandate reform, and environmental legislation that embody the generic preferences for greater policy-making authority and flexibility. Conversely, state and local officials have frequently gotten much less than they hoped for from Congress and presidents. It should be remembered, though, that participants in the policy-making process almost never get everything they hope for. Some observers of American federalism have felt that state authority is essentially hollow today because there are no policy areas into which the federal government cannot enter. If states cannot veto federal actions in certain areas, the logic goes, then federal power must be limitless. This view is too simplistic, however, and it overlooks the many ways that state and local officials have successfully—and constructively—influenced the direction of federal decision making.

More generally, public officials’ associations facilitate professional connections among state and local officials in ways that strengthen the American tradition of decentralized government and improve the quality of state and local policy making. While such associations are mentioned nowhere in the U.S. Constitution, they nonetheless seem vital to the ongoing health of American government at all levels.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

David S. Arnold and Jeremy F. Plant, Public Official Associations and State and Local Government: A Bridge across One Hundred Years (Fairfax, VA: George Mason University Press, 1994); Anne Marie Cammisa, Governments as Interest Groups: Intergovernmental Lobbying and the Federal System (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995); Suzanne Farkas, Urban Lobbying: Mayors in the Federal Arena (New York: New York University Press, 1971); Donald H. Haider, When Governors Come to Washington: Governors, Mayors, and Intergovernmental Lobbying (New York: Free Press, 1974); Thomas Jefferson, “To James Sullivan, June 19, 1807,” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, 76 (New York: G. P. Putnam Sons, 1896); National Association of Counties Web site, http://64.233.161.104/searchq=cache:DYC7jEBXklgJ:204.131.235.73/public/guide.htm+NCSL+educates+new+legislators+on+both+sides+of+issues&start=3&hl=en&lr=&strip=1; United States Conference of Mayors Web site, www.usmayors.org/uscm/about/what_is/what_is_uscm.html; and Carol S. Weissert, “The National Governors’ Association: 1908–1983” State Government 56, no. 2 (1983): 44–52.

John D. Nugent

Last Updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Council of State Governments; County Government; Decentralization; General Revenue Sharing; Governors and Federalism; Housing; Intergovernmental Lobbying; Jefferson, Thomas; Local Government; Madison, James; Mason, George; National Association of Counties; National Conference of State Legislatures; National Governors’ Association; National League of Cities; Revenue Sharing; Slavery; State Government; State Legislatures; States’ Rights; Roosevelt, Theodore; Transportation Policy; Unfunded Mandates; Urban Policy; Welfare Policy